Although probably not a household name, Roberto Díaz is one of the best violists these days. He was principal violist of the Philadelphia Orchestra until recently and is the newly-appointed head of the Curtis Institute. Part of what makes this CD so interesting are the family connections involved. Díaz's father, the Chilean violist Manuel Díaz, was a one-time viola student of William Primrose, and was Roberto's first teacher (as Primrose's father was HIS teacher!). Further, the viola Díaz is playing on is Primrose's very own primary performing viola, one made by brothers Antonio and Hieronymus Amati in about 1600 and now owned by Díaz.
None of this would matter except for the music contained herein. It is a set of transcriptions for viola and piano made by Primrose for his own use in solo performances. As Amazon has not as of the date of this review listed those contents I will do so:
Borodin: Nocturne: Andante (from String Quartet No. 2)
Schubert: Litany for All Soul's Day: Adagio
Beethoven: Notturno, Op. 42 (arr. from the Serenade, Op. 8)
Wagner: 'Träume' (from the Wesendonck Lieder)
Aguirre/Heifetz: Huella: movido y energico
del Valle/Heifetz: Ao Pé da Fogueira: Allegro comodo
Paganini: La Campanella (fr. Violin Concerto No. 2)
Villa-Lobos: Aria from 'Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5'
Bizet: Adagietto from 'L'Arlesienne Suite No. 1'
Efrem Zimbalist: Sarasateana
Tchaikovsky: None but the Lonely Heart
Brahms: Wie Melodien zieht es mir
The Zimbalist is interesting for a couple of reasons. For one thing, Zimbalist is one of Díaz's predecessors as president of the Curtis Institute; the roster itself includes such distinguished musicians as Josef Hofmann, Randall Thompson, Efrem Zimbalist, Rudolf Serkin, John DeLancie, Gary Graffman. Second, the Zimbalist pieces are not strictly speaking Primrose transcriptions. Violinist Zimbalist had made his arrangement of the Paganini pieces for his own use, but when Primrose was teaching at Curtis he asked Zimbalist to arrange them for viola and that's how they came into being.
Highlights: The first track is an absolutely riveting performance of the justly admired Andante from Borodin's Second String Quartet, familiar to many as the basis of 'This is My Beloved' from 'Kismet.' In the original the ingratiating melody is played by the quartet's cellist, but here it is sung gorgeously by Díaz's viola, almost making one forget the original. The Paganini 'La Campanella' comes across as an almost new piece, with the plangent tones of the viola somehow transforming this familiar piece into something entirely different. Díaz's virtuosity really shines here.
I had a little problem with the transcription of the aria from 'Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5' if only because I can't hear it without wanting, rather, to hear the sound of a soprano and all those cellos in the original. As expert as the marvelous collaborative pianist Robert Koenig is, he can't supersede the sound of the celli, although that's not his fault. Díaz gives it a good performance, but he's no soprano!
If ever there was a song that cried out to be heard in the dusky and melancholy tones of the viola, it is 'None But the Lonely Heart.' My god, this is wonderful! It actually brought tears to my eyes! I also uttered a sigh at the beauty of the soulful rendition of the languorous Bizet 'Adagietto'.
Viola recordings aren't all that numerous and probably don't figure high on most record buyers' Want Lists, but this one qualifies for a strong recommendation. You won't be disappointed.