Compared to the brilliant highs that a violin readily projects, the alto ruminations of a viola are the result of acoustical and physical compromises. If a viola were built to replicate the clarion sound of a violin, it would have to have a 53 cm body – half again as long as a violin! This middle voice is the least standardized member of the string family, its length ranging 38-48 cm. The longer ones are considerable challenges, even for players with very long arms. Timbre and strength of voicing varies widely, ranging from a fairly bright mezzo-soprano quality to a deep, husky alto. A viola recital is ideal for sampling the many colors that a skilled musician can draw from the acoustically-shy member of the modern string family.
Ulrich Eichenauer's program, given in Watson Hall on the NC School of the Arts campus on November 29, provided a cornucopia of the broad sound range of the instrument and highlighted his solid musicianship in a variety of styles. Eichenauer has been reviewed numerous times by CVNC as a guest artist with the Four Seasons Chamber Music Festival at ECU and as a former member of the Mendelssohn String Quartet. Earlier he was principal viola of the Dresden Philharmonic. He is currently on the NCSA faculty, and he plays a modern viola made by Wendy and Peter Moes, the Connecticut-based luthiers. The first half of the concert featured the viola alone. After intermission, faculty member Allison Gagnon proved to be an ideal accompanist.
Johann Sebastian Bach "forgot" to compose a set of suites or sonatas for the viola so violists hijack the composer's cello suites. The program notes did not identify who made the transcription used for the d minor Suite II, S.1008. Eichenauer's very focused control of intonation was breath-taking. His bow arm moved with grace as it danced or dug into the strings. His dynamics, phrasing, and tempos in five of the six movements were convincing. The "Courante" was startling – it was taken faster than the cellists that I have heard on numerous recordings or in live performances. An online survey suggests that the standard tempo used by cellists may actually be too fast. Eichenauer's precipitate approach was certainly thought-provoking if not totally convincing.
Benjamin Britten's Elegy (1930), for unaccompanied viola, dates from the composer's 17th year and preceded the Sinfonietta, Op. 1 (1932), the earliest of his works covered in any detail by biographers. It begins with a broad, mellow, melodic line. It ranges from a barely whispered "pp" to a surprizingly robust forte and traverses a spectrum from low alto to showy high notes, some having an edgy 20th-century quality. Its ending, with hushed harmonics, was memorable.
Max Reger's Suite in G Minor for Solo Viola, Op. 131d, No. 1, was the welcome "discovery" of the evening. Reger also composed three Suites for solo cello, Op. 131. Sources at hand fail to clarify the degree to which the viola pieces are transcriptions. The composer has an unjustified reputation of being too heavy, with scores laden with chromaticism and polyphony. A number of his chamber works are light-textured and winning. This piece begins with rich, full sound, and the first movement features a lovely airy theme, spiced by some complex harmonics. The second movement sandwiches fast portions around a slow and measured interlude. The third movement abounds in rich harmonies as plush melody is spun out. The finale is a winged tour de force that tests the soloist's accuracy and agility. Eichenauer made the best possible case for this work.
Although the cello is my favorite string instrument, I have never warmed to the cello version of Franz Schubert's Sonata in a minor for Arpeggione and Piano, D.821. According to New Grove II, the arpeggione was "essentially a bass viol with guitar-type tuning [24 frets]..., bowed like a cello." The tone color Eichenauer conjured up was most winning, as was his seamless weaving of the composer's melodies. His phrasing was straight-forward and eloquent, and his articulation was unusually clean, with hairpin bow control.
His dark-hued tone was most welcome in Robert Schumann's Fantasiestücke for Piano and Viola, Op. 73. Pianist Allison Gagnon kept the keyboard perfectly balanced with the piano lid fully up. The give and take between the two was a major delight.
Warm audience response was rewarded with two arrangements from Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet. The tart themes and rhythmic thrust were delightfully pungent.