The Strad Issue: January 2013
Description: A viola disc making a good case for ‘borrowing’ sonatas from other instruments
Musicians: Tabea Zimmermann (viola) Kirill Gerstein (piano)
Composer: Brahms, Schubert, Franck

These sonatas were written for other instruments, but two of them have long been incorporated into the viola’s repertoire, and most violists have dallied over the third one. Brahms himself was in doubt as to how best to transcribe his clarinet sonatas for the viola, but Zimmermann sticks to his version and makes it work memorably. Mindful of the music having been conceived for clarinet, she mostly eschews any attention-grabbing portamento, and her tone acquires at moments an appropriate reediness.

With Schubert’s Sonata for arpeggione, an extinct instrument in the cello range, some low passages have to be transposed up; a few of the seams show, but this lovely performance is imbued with that untranslatable Viennese quality, gemütlichkeit.

I have still to hear a wholly convincing performance of the Franck Sonata on the viola, but Zimmermann comes nearer than most. In a tour de force, she plays it almost entirely at the original pitch – even, frustratingly, the one phrase in which the violin original could use a C string. Some of the highest passages sound – if only by Zimmermann standards – just that bit tentative, but the performance is marked by a moving lyricism – one seldom notices just how much of the music is marked pianissimo. The excellent recording has the viola cosily cradled within the piano’s sound and is perfectly balanced.

Carlos María Solare