The Strad Issue: January 2011
Description: A riveting collection of recent and established works for violin and viola
Musicians: Thomas Zehetmair (violin) Ruth Killius (viola)
Composer: Killius, Scelsi, Holliger, Bartók, Skalkottas, Maxwell Davies, Martinu & Nied

This adventurous selection of music for violin and viola begins where others end, the one more-or-less well-known piece being the title-giving Three Madrigals by Martinu. They receive a brilliantly virtuosic performance that, however, lacks that ultimate identification with the music’s syntax that tends to be the preserve of Czech players (Ji?í Novák and Milan Škampa remain unbeatable). No such caveats apply to the rest of the programme, which has in part been written for this husband-and-wife team, who perform it with technical aplomb and a remarkably wide tonal palette.

Heinz Holliger’s Three Sketches were supposed to be an encore to be played after Mozart’s Sinfonia concertante, and they accordingly employ that piece’s scordatura tuning for the viola. Although their harmonic language makes them, let’s say, unconventional for their original purpose, they are fascinating explorations of, respectively, natural harmonics, rhythmic intricacies and polyphony, with both players required to add their voices to make up a six-part texture. A similar device is used in Giacinto Scelsi’s Manto for unaccompanied viola, the player here impersonating the eponymous Greek prophetess.

Aural relief from this demanding repertoire is provided by Peter Maxwell Davies’s Midhouse Air (inspired by Orkney fiddling), Bartók’s student prank in which both players play the same part, one of them backwards, and Rainer Killius’s setting of an Icelandic drinking song. Recording quality and presentation are up to ECM’s usual, sophisticated standards.

Carlos María Solare