The Strad Issue: January 2009
Musicians: Susanne van Els (viola) Gerard Bouwhuis (piano) Schönberg Ensemble/Reinbert de Leeuw
Composer: Milhaud, Ysaÿe, Hindemith

This imaginatively planned CD begins and ends with nicely lilting performances of two of Milhaud’s Quatre visages, its centrepiece being the composer’s First Viola Concerto. Both compositions bring out the best qualities in Susanne van Els’s playing. She suggests West Coast snugness in ‘La californienne’ and cosmopolitan chic in ‘La parisienne’, and manages to imbue the concerto’s bustling rhythms with a modicum of songful sweetness. Van Els is a tad too closely balanced, which obscures some orchestral detail, but not seriously so. With Reinbert de Leeuw in charge, the performance is tightly knit.

Conversely, in the two unaccompanied pieces van Els is way too indulgent, loading the music with a rubato that makes its shape very hard to understand. This is a first recording of Ysaÿe’s Cello Sonata in a viola version (apparently the composer tried it out on the viola himself). Contemporaneous with Ysaÿe’s Violin Sonatas op.27, the piece breathes the same faux-Baroque air and uses similar hot-house harmonies.

Hindemith’s Sonata is taken at very slow speeds. There are some sins of omission in the (in)famous ‘Wild’ movement and a glaring (but frequently encountered) misreading in the final one. On the plus side is some eloquent playing by van Els on her beautiful-sounding Testore, truthfully recorded.

Carlos María Solare