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William Primrose: Viola Transcriptions
Alexander Borodin, Franz [Vienna] Schubert, Ludwig van Beethoven
William Primrose: Viola Transcriptions
Genres: Special Interest, Pop, Classical
  •  Track Listings (17) - Disc #1

The comparative paucity of the viola repertoire, especially of the romantic period, has made violists expert poachers in the literature of others. William Primrose, one of the greatest violists of his or any other time, wa...  more »


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The comparative paucity of the viola repertoire, especially of the romantic period, has made violists expert poachers in the literature of others. William Primrose, one of the greatest violists of his or any other time, was a prolific, skillful transcriber. He said he was motivated by the desire to showcase his instrument's underrated potential and his own prodigious technique, and also by envy - of cellists, singers, and especially violinists: in the transcriptions on this record, much of the writing is so stratospheric that the viola becomes a would-be violin. Diaz is a superb, brilliant violist and negotiates the top register easily, but it still sometimes sounds shrill and unnatural, especially since he tends to become aggressive in the chords and double stops. He is at his best in the slow, singing pieces; they most effectively display his warm, pure, variable tone and expressive eloquence, which never becomes sentimental. The program includes Borodin's "Nocturne" from the string quartet, with the viola playing the cello part, and songs by Schubert, Wagner, Brahms and Tchaikovsky, all played with simplicity and elegance. In Villa-Lobos' Brasileiras, the viola takes the soprano part, leaving the piano to impersonate eight cellos. Only the transcription of Beethoven's "Notturno" Op. 42, arranged from the String Trio Op. 8, doesn't work; the distribution of the music between the instruments is uneven and unbalanced. Among the bravura pieces, Paganini's "La Campanella" seems unsuited to the viola and sounds labored, but two Spanish dances, transcriptions of transcriptions by Heifetz, have a fine idiomatic flavor, as does Efrem Zimbalist's Suite "Sarasateana" - that demonstration of how to make famously difficult virtuoso pieces even more difficult - in his own transcription for Primrose. Pianist Robert Koenig is a splendid partner. --Edith Eisler

CD Reviews

All in the Family
J Scott Morrison | Middlebury VT, USA | 07/31/2006
(5 out of 5 stars)

"Although probably not a household name, Roberto Díaz is one of the best violists these days. He was principal violist of the Philadelphia Orchestra until recently and is the newly-appointed head of the Curtis Institute. Part of what makes this CD so interesting are the family connections involved. Díaz's father, the Chilean violist Manuel Díaz, was a one-time viola student of William Primrose, and was Roberto's first teacher (as Primrose's father was HIS teacher!). Further, the viola Díaz is playing on is Primrose's very own primary performing viola, one made by brothers Antonio and Hieronymus Amati in about 1600 and now owned by Díaz.

None of this would matter except for the music contained herein. It is a set of transcriptions for viola and piano made by Primrose for his own use in solo performances. As Amazon has not as of the date of this review listed those contents I will do so:

Borodin: Nocturne: Andante (from String Quartet No. 2)
Schubert: Litany for All Soul's Day: Adagio
Beethoven: Notturno, Op. 42 (arr. from the Serenade, Op. 8)
Wagner: 'Träume' (from the Wesendonck Lieder)
Aguirre/Heifetz: Huella: movido y energico
del Valle/Heifetz: Ao Pé da Fogueira: Allegro comodo
Paganini: La Campanella (fr. Violin Concerto No. 2)
Villa-Lobos: Aria from 'Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5'
Bizet: Adagietto from 'L'Arlesienne Suite No. 1'
Efrem Zimbalist: Sarasateana
Tchaikovsky: None but the Lonely Heart
Brahms: Wie Melodien zieht es mir

The Zimbalist is interesting for a couple of reasons. For one thing, Zimbalist is one of Díaz's predecessors as president of the Curtis Institute; the roster itself includes such distinguished musicians as Josef Hofmann, Randall Thompson, Efrem Zimbalist, Rudolf Serkin, John DeLancie, Gary Graffman. Second, the Zimbalist pieces are not strictly speaking Primrose transcriptions. Violinist Zimbalist had made his arrangement of the Paganini pieces for his own use, but when Primrose was teaching at Curtis he asked Zimbalist to arrange them for viola and that's how they came into being.

Highlights: The first track is an absolutely riveting performance of the justly admired Andante from Borodin's Second String Quartet, familiar to many as the basis of 'This is My Beloved' from 'Kismet.' In the original the ingratiating melody is played by the quartet's cellist, but here it is sung gorgeously by Díaz's viola, almost making one forget the original. The Paganini 'La Campanella' comes across as an almost new piece, with the plangent tones of the viola somehow transforming this familiar piece into something entirely different. Díaz's virtuosity really shines here.

I had a little problem with the transcription of the aria from 'Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5' if only because I can't hear it without wanting, rather, to hear the sound of a soprano and all those cellos in the original. As expert as the marvelous collaborative pianist Robert Koenig is, he can't supersede the sound of the celli, although that's not his fault. Díaz gives it a good performance, but he's no soprano!

If ever there was a song that cried out to be heard in the dusky and melancholy tones of the viola, it is 'None But the Lonely Heart.' My god, this is wonderful! It actually brought tears to my eyes! I also uttered a sigh at the beauty of the soulful rendition of the languorous Bizet 'Adagietto'.

Viola recordings aren't all that numerous and probably don't figure high on most record buyers' Want Lists, but this one qualifies for a strong recommendation. You won't be disappointed.

Scott Morrison
A Legend in Our Lifetime
Robert C. Nimmich | Charleston, SC USA | 12/13/2007
(5 out of 5 stars)

"It is as if, in his hands, his instrument has lungs and a tongue. He can sing and change timbre four times in one bow leaving one breathless! Flawless virtuosity, yet with soul. Roberto neither leaves you warn out from too much sentimentality, nor wanting for soul and musicality amid "so many notes."

We have the making of a legend in our own time. This recording is priceless.

-Robert C Nimmich"
I prefer music written specifically for the viola.
David H. Downing | Psoli, PA | 09/06/2009
(2 out of 5 stars)

"The viola has always fascinated me because of its dark, somber timbre. In fact, I even wrote a piece for viola once -- a setting of the "Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow" soliloquy from Macbeth. I wanted that dark timbre to go with the dark content of the text.

Nevertheless, after listening to the samples from this CD, I think I'm going to pass in favor of a recording of music written specifically for the viola. Although this violist is definitely virtuosic, this collection of transcriptions shows why there was so little music written to feature the viola before the 20th century. When the viola plays the kind of music that was usually played by other instruments -- that was, in fact, written for other instruments, in this case -- that dark, somber timbre is intrusive and heavy-handed, and tends to bring the music down.

Yes, I am interested in hearing music written for the viola -- if it was actually written for the viola.

(Note: One exception to this was a viola transcription of the John Cage piece "Dream," but that was music that seemed suitable for the viola.)"