Is there a more treacherous instrument in the string family than the viola? How intractable it can be to those many who endeavour to play it in tune but succeed only fitfully. But when Roger Benedict tucks it under his chin, how perfectly behaved it is. Here indeed is a viola tamed—and it does his master’s bidding to the most beguiling of ends in a way that most other violists would give their eye teeth to emulate. It is impossible to overstate the merit of this recorded recital; it brims to overflowing with good things, not least the stream of often exquisitely mellow tone which Benedict conjures from the instrument.
Here’s a fascinating compilation, well off the beaten track—and yet another instance of Melba’s adventurous forays into the seldom heard, even less seldom recorded.
Charles Kœchlin’s Sonata for Viola and Piano (which years later would be followed by sonatas for cello and for horn) is a major opus to which both Benedict and Timothy Young bring a wealth of experience and insight.
Kœchlin’s sonata is unlikely ever to reach the top ten of viola favourites. There is little about it which could be thought of as either memorably catchy or of Olympian profundity. But it is nonetheless a valuable addition to the sadly small repertoire of music for the instrument—and it is played with such beauty of tone and insights of such intense musicality that it holds the attention from first note to last. Certainly, the dark and sombre nature of the opening adagio is wonderfully evoked—as is the wild dance that is the essence of the scherzo. And the calm, thoughtful approach to the extended soliloquy which takes up much of the third movement is musical to the nth degree.
I particularly liked Kœchlin’s Quatre Petites Pièces in which Benedict and Young are joined by Ben Jacks whose horn playing here is the stuff of aural delight, enchanting moments that would surely charm the grumpiest bird from a twig. The musical chemistry of the trio is constantly apparent here, not least in the opening andante in which a songlike viola and Jacks at his winning best make magic. I particularly admired the skilled and most effective internal tonal balance. Young is everywhere convincing, not least in finely stated, rippling figurations in the movement marked très modéré.
Benedict and Young come up trumps, too, in four engaging pieces by Belgian composer Joseph Jongen. These, too, are as polished in presentation as the Kœchlin works.