Sympathetic reworkings for the viola prove most persuasive

Mathis Rochat, Stephen Waarts: C.P.E. Bach, Graun

The Strad Issue: May 2024

Description: Sympathetic reworkings for the viola prove most persuasive

Musicians: Mathis Rochat (viola) Stephen Waarts (violin) Camerata Schweiz/Howard Griffiths

Works: C.P.E. Bach: Concerto in B flat major. Graun: Concertante in C minor; Concerto in E flat major

Catalogue number: CPO 555 613-2

Both Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach and Johann Gottlieb Graun were members of Frederick the Great’s court orchestra in mid 18th-century Berlin as, respectively, harpsichordist and leader. An unusually large number of viola compositions were written at the court of that ardently arts-loving monarch, a sure sign that an excellent player must have been at hand, perhaps Graun himself. Not unexpectedly, both composers cultivate the empfindsamer Stil (‘sensitive style’) favoured by Frederick: somewhat schematically built melodic material proceeding over a pounding bass line, enlivened by aching dissonances.

Bach’s concerto – in its original form a rather high-lying cello piece – lends itself very well to performance on the viola, Mathis Rochat’s arrangement making do with just an occasional octave transposition. Rochat’s infectiously enthusiastic playing follows historically informed practice. His varied use of vibrato is a constant joy, as are his crisp spiccato and endlessly inventive phrasing (listen out for some discreet left-hand pizzicato in the second movement’s cadenza). Stephen Waarts proves a like-minded partner in Graun’s Concertante, a large-format piece that also exists in a version for viola da gamba which I suspect to be the original one. Graun’s concerto is certainly an original viola work, its passagework tailored for the instrument, concentrating on effective passages of bariolage rather than excursions into the highest register.

These warmly recorded interpretations are lovingly supported by Camerata Schweiz under Howard Griffiths’s gentle guidance.