Susanne van Els

Darius Milhaud: Viola Concerto No. 1; Quatre Visages

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The short period of time between the two World Wars was a prolific time for classical music of nearly every genre. Even the viola, an often unfairly neglected instrument, prospered during this time with several quality compositions made just for its unique capabilities and sound quality in mind. This Et'Cetera album features violist Susanne van Els and primarily consists of works from this period. At the heart of the program is Milhaud's jazzy but demanding First Concerto, heard here in its version for 15 instruments plus viola solo. Bookending the concerto is Hindemith's challenging Op. 25 Sonata for Solo Viola and Eugène Ysaÿe's Sonata for Solo Cello. While not a work originally for the viola, van Els cites precedent in her liner notes for the appropriateness of her decision to play the work on viola. With so much solo work, listeners' attention is squarely focused on van Els for the vast majority of the album. For the most part, she is a violist with an abundance of energy and vitality, particularly in her right arm. Her technique is considerable, and intonation is generally (though not always) solid. What's lacking from her playing, however, is enough refinement and musical sensitivity. Because of the energy in her right arm, her sound too often sounds forced and pressured; this is especially true as she fights to dominate the accompanying instruments in the Milhaud concerto. The difficulty of performing the Ysaÿe sonata on the viola is audibly noticeable, but listeners should not have to focus on the difficulty of execution over musical content. Listeners interested in the literature presented on this disc will still find a home for this album so long as they're not expecting the warmest, most engaging viola playing possible.

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