Violist Julia Rebekka Adler and pianist Axel Gremmelspacher presented a program—and their latest CD—in the sub-basement of the Mozart House in Vienna, just in the shadow of St. Stephen’s Cathedral. The program and disc are titled “Viola in Exile”, concocted of composers, threatened, prosecuted, and eventually forgotten, that they all huddled at the very back of the alphabet: Leo Weiner, Karl Weigl, Mieczysław Weinberg, and Erich Zeisl.
K.Weigl, E.Zeisl, H.Gál Viola Sonatas,
J.R.Adler / A.Gremmelspacher
M.Weinberg, Complete Sonatas for Solo Viola,
J.R.Adler / J.Nemtsov
M.Weinberg, Complete Works for Violin & Piano,
L.Roth / J.Gallardo
Viola in ExileIt was an unusual concert in that it took place before an audience of seven or—deducting the record producer, his wife, the music critic, friends of the performers and the page turner—zero: Empty chairs to the right of them, empty chairs to the left of them, empty chairs in front of them, was there a man dismay’d? Not tho’ the artists knew… someone had blunder’d.
Weinberg, so injected very directly into the ear as in the intimate acoustic of the little Bösendorfer Saal (it used to be Mozart’s wine cellar, almost guaranteeing that the vibes are good!), is always an ear-opening, not to say ear-splitting experience. A fragile-looking pale and ginger wisp of a woman, Julia Rebekka Adler’s sound is—for all the dance it contains—like a giant redwood falling on your roof: Big, and anything in its way better watch out. It’s just the thing for Weinberg who must be able to disturb as much as he must occasionally smile.
Karl Weigl’s Viola Sonata has more Shostakovich in its first movement than all of Weinberg (who is routinely, if lazily, accused of being a pocket-size Shostakovich, due to his close friendship and collaboration with the iconic Soviet composer). Smokey, throaty beauty with edges, it was given a terrific and intense performance here and in the folk-music embracing second movement and the lyrical third movement, and thanks to it, was able to convince as music as I hadn’t known it could. It is also included on the two artists’ recording (and I have to re-listen), but my ears were opened to the very considerable quality and beauty of the work only on this occasion.
Also included on the CD and present on the program was Eric Zeisl’s Violin Sonata. Eric Zeisl, like Weigl and Weinberg, is a 20th century composer who has a chapter dedicated in the upcoming second edition of Robert Reilly’s “Surprised by Beauty (A Listener’s Guide to the Recovery of 20th and 21st Century Music)”. He’s one of those fascinating neglected minor-yet-wonderful composers I love to write about (I contributed that particular chapter to Reilly’s book). Insiders know that his daughter married Arnold Schoenberg’s son, and that they two men were close, but that is about the closest Zeisl’s music gets to Schoenberg’s in a sentence. Zeisl’s music is post-romantic, sometimes naïve, and perfectly Austrian (though after 1940 increasingly imbued with Hebrew overtones, as he watched the horrors from California, having escaped Hitler-Europe himself). It lacks all pretensions and this viola sonata is one of the more astounding, powerful and tensely melodious pieces of 20th century chamber music. A jewel, not only within the viola repertoire, and haunting with its shivering slow movement that never fails to get under my skin or that insistent, forceful and exotic edge of the modal third movement. Leo Weiner’ Csárdás Peregi Verbunk, which was wedged into the program, is a uplifting mix between a variation-movement viola sonata and a send-up of Brahms’s Hungarian dances. A little soufflé to lighten the mood.
If a concert takes place and there is no audience to hear it, does it make a sound? Most certainly, as it turns out. And what a sound, indeed. It was a performance to end all viola jokes (if that were possible) and caused such a surprising amount of clapping noise from the 14 enthused hands, that the performers indulged the 14 attached ears in an encore of Paul Ben Haim’s Sepphardic Melody.