Any violist will tell you that although we have some spectacular works for solo viola and orchestra, there are relatively few compared to those for violin or cello. Violist Roger Myers is working to rectify the situation with his new album of music for viola and orchestra, Fantasy and Farewell (released by the Delos label). The album features the newly-commissioned Suite for Viola and Orchestra by Michael McLean, Robert Schumann’s Märchenbilder, Op. 113 and Dmitri Shostakovich’s Viola Sonata, Op. 147. The latter two pieces, originally for viola and piano, have been transcribed for viola and orchestra.
In Fantasy and Farewell, Myers performs with an infinite range of color and impeccable technique. He is accompanied by the London Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Michael Francis. Myers and the orchestra communicate seamlessly with each other, creating a powerful collaboration between chamber musicians rather than the stereotypical soloist battling against an orchestra.
The album opens with Michael McLean’s Suite for Viola and Orchestra, which Myers commissioned in memory of his mother, concert pianist Leone Stredwick. McLean pays homage to Stredwick’s favorite work, St. Matthew’s Passion by J.S. Bach, by integrating aspects of Baroque form and the melody from the Passion’s chorale. The result is a sumptuous work which Bach might have composed if he had lived in the 21st century with a full symphonic orchestra at his disposal.
In the opening of the “Prelude” a flute and upper strings evoke imagery of a misty horizon. After a brief cello and flute duet, Myers penetrates the mist with a plaintive melody. The stark opening blossoms into a bouquet of harmonies. Later, the viola sings improvisatory-style melodies over orchestral accompaniment which alternately pulses like a heartbeat and undulates with sumptuous chords.
According to McLean, the somber “Passacaglia” serves the function of a funeral march. The dark tones of the lower strings and French horn at the start of the movement express emptiness and loss. As the piece progresses, the ever-increasing rhythmic speeds emulate the inevitable flow of life. A transcendent moment takes place exactly halfway through the movement, in which Myers plays with a delectably transparent tone.
The “Chorale” opens with a reverent statement of Bach’s “Befiehl Du Deine Wege” in the lower strings and horns. Next, the flutes and strings swoop in with a perky melody which seems to reflect Stredwick’s joyful spirit. Myers flexes his considerable virtuosic muscles through statements of the chorale’s stanzas with complex chords and finger-blurring runs. After a pensive cadenza, the movement settles into warm harmonies and a sense of resolution.
Whereas the McLean Suite is clearly a work for a soloist and orchestra, the viola plays less of a starring role in the Schumann and Shostakovich. This makes sense, given that the arrangements come from sonatas in which the viola and piano are collaborators rather than soloist and accompanist.
Michael McLean’s arrangement of Märchenbilder transports Schumann’s charming vignettes from their black-and-white viola and piano world into a Technicolor orchestral fantasy land. The first movement resembles a journey into a magical forest. Myers’s tone sparkles as he converses with woodwinds and strings which play the roles of singing birds, dancing elves, and fluttering fairies. The second movement of this work has been reimagined as a cheerful toy soldier battle. A clever bit of orchestration employs snappy timpani rolls to imitate the firing of toy cannons.
Myers does an exquisite job of evoking the characters of a damsel in distress and a heroic knight in the third movement. The speedy 16th note triplets have become the pitter patter of the damsel’s slippers as she runs from a dastardly villain. McLean portrays the knight’s bravery with swashbuckling enthusiasm. The final movement depicts a child falling asleep sleep while listening to her mother reading fairytales. In a duet with the viola’s closest tonal relative, the clarinet, Myers lulls the listener with a warm tone and luscious vibrato while the orchestra cushions the duo with plush harmonies.
Despite Myers and the LSO’s beautiful performance, Vladimir Mendelssohn’s arrangement of Shostakovich’s Viola Sonata is the least successful work on the album. The orchestration is so thick that it is sometimes difficult to distinguish the violist from the ensemble. Moreover, there are several places where either the viola’s solo has been given to the orchestra, or the viola plays a melody originally written for the piano. Most of all, the arrangement loses the starkness of the original viola and piano composition. This sonata, completed four days before Shostakovich’s death, is the composer’s exploration of his own mortality. An orchestra is simply too big to properly express the intimate nature of this work.
The most successful parts of this piece are those with the sparsest instrumentation. The opening of the first movement, featuring Myers’ pizzicato melody accompanied by string soloists playing without vibrato, is eerie enough to raise goose pimples. There is an interesting spot about three minutes into the second movement where a traditional Russian melody originally played by the piano has been given to the orchestra’s cellos and basses, giving the effect of the melody being sung by a men’s chorus. Myers outdoes himself with a nuanced performance of the third movement. He plays the beginning of the movement with a sublime, veiled tone. In a cadenza about three quarters of the way through the movement, he bypasses overt showmanship in favor of subtle, restrained fury. At the end of the piece, Myers and the orchestra work beautifully together to portray a heartbeat as it gradually slows and “flatlines”.
This album will make a great addition to any violist’s collection. The McLean piece has enough nuance and complexity to hold up to repeated listening. The Schumann arrangement is an absolute delight, and the Shostakovich, despite its shortcomings, features Myers at his expressive best. The opening track from the album is available for streaming below.