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Henri VIEUXTEMPS (1820-1881)
Sonata for viola and piano in B flat major, Op 36 (1863) [24:13]
Capriccio for solo viola in C minor, Op posth [3:38]
Unfinished Sonata for viola and piano in B flat major, Op posth [27:35]
Elegy for viola and piano in E minor, Op 30 (1854)[7:00]
Etude for viola and piano [3:00]
Christian Euler (viola), Paul Rivinius (piano)
rec. 2017, Konzerthaus der Abtei Marienmünster, Germany
MDG SACD 903 2063-6 [66:11]

As a child Vieuxtemps studied violin with Charles Auguste de Bériot and emerged to become the doyen of the Franco-Belgian violin school. He was admired by both Berlioz and perhaps more pertinently Paganini, whom he idolised. His reputation rests on his seven virtuosic violin concertos, of which No 5 is arguably the most famous – it was certainly recorded pretty regularly in the seventies and eighties. Needless to say the vast majority of his oeuvre features the violin but there are exceptions; Heinrich Schiff and Alban Gerhardt are among the few to have recorded his two cello concertos, while his small output for viola fits snugly onto one disc. The present issue has a surprising amount of competition; while I cannot claim to be familiar with these recordings I can refer readers to a review of Diaz and Koenig on Naxos, while two other discs containing these works can be found on Champs Hill (CHRCD 130 – Timothy Ridout and Ke Ma) and Audite (AUDITE 97486 – Vladimir Stoupel and Thomas Selditz).

Vieuxtemps’s only bona-fide complete viola sonata dates from 1863 and opens this disc. The Maestoso introduction is languid, nostalgic and wistful. Christian Euler extracts a rich, sultry tone from the lower register of his instrument and his performance here is unshowy, which suits the spirit of the music. No virtuosic Paganinian fireworks here! The slow tread of the introduction gives way to a busier, even sunnier Allegro which is still rather undercooked and introspective and receives appropriately understated treatment. The recording is almost perfectly suited to the material, perfectly natural with no need for any manipulation. Euler’s partner here, Paul Rivinius, is a fine match and respects the need for restraint in this music even when some of the more unpredictable elements in his part emerge, which they do eventually. The central Barcarolle is winsome, more Mendelssohn than Fauré perhaps. Initially it resembles agreeable salon music but as it proceeds Euler captures well its emotional ambiguities as it darkens and deepens. The brief finale begins with a rather Schumannesque melody– this is taken up by the viola. There is more intricate interplay between the players and a passage full of unexpected modulations prior to its conclusion. Vieuxtemps’s completed viola sonata is unpretentious, honest and wholesome and receives a performance worthy of that description. If Euler’s playing seems a little buttoned up, it seems to me it’s because he’s deliberately avoiding over-egging any expressive potential in the music. The recording is similarly poised and completely appropriate.

If the opening of the tiny solo Capriccio looks back to Paganini it also anticipates the music of Vieuxtemps’s compatriot and fellow virtuoso Eugène Ysaÿe. As the booklet implies, the title of the piece belies its somewhat terse and pre-occupied content. The work affords greater opportunity for Euler to display his virtuoso credentials, featuring, as it does, plenty of double stopping. The sound of the unaccompanied viola here is gloriously revealed in a vivid recording.

Vieuxtemps’s Unfinished Sonata is an odd work, consisting of two extended movements. While it sounds incomplete to my ears, some experts have claimed that the composer only ever intended a dyad; indeed the work was published after his death as Allegro and Scherzo. The work projects an unabashed romanticism from the outset and while it may be more challenging to the violist’s technique than the official sonata, I found the marriage of an unwieldy structure to rather derivative content to be rather unsatisfying. There are certainly greater contrasts of mood in this work compared to its ‘official’ sibling, but I found it rambling and unedifying. In fact the constant repetition of a rather nagging little tune in the second half of the scherzo really grates. Euler and Rivinius do their utmost but they cannot save what is in my view an over-elaborate and overlong piece.

Vieuxtemps’s Elegy is his best-known work for viola. It’s also his finest for the instrument. It’s marked Andante con moto and consequently it’s far from funereal. Euler and Rivinius strike a perfect musical and emotional balance here, perhaps projecting a sense of acceptance and resilience rather than resignation and loss. Rivinius’s unassuming account of a busy piano part perfectly complements the more burnished sound of Euler’s viola. The brief Etude which concludes the disc is a bright and undemanding perpetuum mobile discovered relatively recently. It makes a pleasant encore piece and is again executed with appropriate tact and good taste.

Christian Euler and Paul Rivinius are clearly an experienced duo and give thoughtful, intensely musical accounts of all these works. They are truthfully recorded by the MDG engineers, while the SACD layer adds a little air to the sound. However, the fact that there by now quite a few discs devoted to Vieuxtemps’s viola output says more to me about the paucity of repertoire for the instrument than it does about any intrinsic merit within these pieces. Maybe I need to one of the other versions, though, before I conclusively accept that hypothesis.

Richard Hanlon

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