Elgar...viola concerto? Has a previously forgotten work been discovered? Alas, no. The viola concerto referenced on the cover of this Ondine album featuring violist David Aaron Carpenter is in fact a transcription of the famous E minor Cello Concerto. Purists, take a breath and let's proceed. Elgar did in fact give a nod of approval to the arrangement made by violist Lionel Tertis. Carpenter has further refined the original Tertis transcription, keeping the solo part remarkably true to the original cello part. This is not hard to imagine, as the viola possesses the same strings as the cello, just an octave higher. For anyone listening to Carpenter's performance without previous knowledge of the Cello Concerto, it's possible that the "viola version" would make a tremendous impact. Carpenter's playing is amazingly lush and technically superb; his interpretation of the work easily rivals the great cellists who have performed this work. But for those who are familiar with these great cello interpretations, there is something obviously missing here: the depth and darkness achieved by the cello. Adding that extra octave to the viola part brightens the landscape no matter how sultry and provocative Carpenter's tone may be.
What is entirely successful is what comes next: Carpenter's performance of the Schnittke Viola Concerto. Without any necessary comparison to an "original" version, listeners can truly focus on the music at hand. Schnittke's concerto, written for Carpenter's teacher Yuri Bashmet, is one of the crown jewels of the viola repertoire. It is filled with dark, despairing passages, perhaps presaging the series of strokes the composer was to suffer immediately after its completion. Carpenter's performance is staggering in its power and intensity. Conductor Christoph Eschenbach and the Philharmonia Orchestra provide an equally dark, mysterious background with careful attention to dynamics to allow the viola to be heard easily throughout.