Review (CD): Œuvres pour alto et piano / Gérard Caussé; Brigitte Engerer (2012)

The viola has been undervalued and scorned since time immemorial, with much major viola literature having only been written within the past hundred years. Interestingly, this 2012 album, Œuvres pour alto et piano (Works for viola and piano), features a generous selection of 19th century works, or perhaps more commonly referred to as Romantic era music. And perhaps to the amusement of many, half of the tracks weren’t actually originally scored for viola. That being said, the title does sound pretty ironic in that aspect, if not even tongue-in-cheek.

A full Russian programme, the melancholic and dark nature of the works is well represented by the album cover – a bleak Muscovite winter landscape. As with most of his other solo albums, Caussé presents several interpretative choices which are less conventional. Engerer, a Russian-trained French pianist, was throughout sensitive to the subtle articulations, with her attacks on the keyboard well matched to those executed on the viola. Commendably, her role as a collaborator did not hinder her artistic freedom (as it does with many, hence the somewhat derogatory term accompanist), with the incorporation of tasteful rubato and hairpins within little flourishes.

Opening with a stoic account of Glazunov’s Élegie, the album does bring a different concept of melancholy to the listener – not a dramatic, emotional outcry (pretty typical nowadays, thinking about it), but instead a frank and honest acceptance. Here, Caussé favours the use of lower positions and open strings, with frequent accents created largely with lifted bow attacks.  Though this may not settle particularly well with the modern listener, it is truly an intriguing take which begs the question – is continuity of line always necessary (and appropriate) in performing music of the 19th century? On a sidenote, a quirky observation would be Caussé’s quiet humming recalling the similar eccentricity immortalised by Glenn Gould. (sporadic, but most audible from 3:09 – 3:19; he generally hums the melodic contour of his part but occasionally hums the piano part as well.)

The arrangement of the three Tchaikovsky works well-exploited the strengths of Caussé’s 1560 Gasparo da Salo viola, showcasing the lower harmonics of the instrument extensively. The tone was extremely fine and assured throughout, with a wide palette of tonal colours demonstrated on the C and G strings, especially in the Valse Sentimentale – showcasing the viola’s expressive potential.

Rachmaninoff’s 1915 Vocalise, originally written for soprano and piano, is among the most popular elegiac works in the classical repertory. Many commercial arrangements are available, with the composer also having re-scored it for orchestra, as well as soprano and orchestra himself. The most commercially-available arrangement for viola and piano would probably be the Leonard Davis arrangement published by IMC. Caussé opts for an alternative arrangement from an uncredited source, which opens an octave above the original Davis arrangement. This does, to some extent, recall the arrangement for violin and piano by Jascha Heifetz. Though the usage of a higher octave does indeed heighten the intensity, it would have personally been a greater pleasure to enjoy the work in a lower register – especially after having heard its capabilities in the previous tracks.

Sardonic and nail-bitingly chilling, Shostakovich’s 1975 Viola Sonata was his last work before his demise. Notable in the first movement would be Caussé’s treatment of the return of the open string pizzicatos at 2:55, where he intentionally stops the string from vibrating after each note, effectively muting the sound. Hauntingly, after all Shostakovich did not have a positive relationship with the Soviet government, having been denounced twice, and some of his works even banned. The dark humour of the Allegretto was compounded by Caussé’s incisive playing, with many sudden, unexpected contrasts in articulation. Intonation was impressively secure, for a work of such technical difficulty; that the composer himself asked the dedicatee, Fyodor Druzhinin, if certain areas would be even possible on the viola. Admittedly though, some greater audacity would have been delightful. The Adagio, was well supported by Engerer, with the quotes from Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 14 in C-sharp minor (Moonlight) phrased beautifully, especially the low octaves establishing the sombre mood.

A wonderful benchmark recording, Œuvres pour alto et piano pushes the boundaries of the viola’s expressive capability. It is indeed a pity that there are insufficient works originally composed for viola in that period of time, though with Caussé’s new album – it does certainly prove that the viola is beyond capable of doing justice to arrangements of such compositions.

Listen to this recording here:
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