Déjà Review: this review was first published in October 2003 and the recording is still available.

A Bird Came Down the Walk – Viola on Stage
Nobuko Imai (viola by Andreas Guarnerius, Cremona 1690)
Roland Pöntinen (piano)
rec. 1996, Danderyd School, Danderyd, Sweden
BIS BISCD829 [78]

This is one of those rare recital recordings that actually plays best as a recital. Since each piece seems to lead so perfectly into the next, I don’t recommend jumping ahead to your favourite piece, or what you think will be your favourite piece. It will sound best played in sequence with the others. Taken as a whole this concert comes across as quite a bit more than the sum of its parts. Ms. Imai gives credit to Mr. Yukihisa Miyayama of King Records for helping with setting up the program and for once I am ready to take a bow to both of them for a job well done.

Quite a number of these works are world premier recordings. The repertoire for viola and piano is quite small (I think I have all the rest of it on a single disk by Kim Kashkashian) and the range of styles of these pieces is from lushly romantic to severely modern, from furious, violent, drama to the quietest, most fragile meditation, but each piece was actually published for viola and piano and nothing has been hastily converted from music for other instruments. The Britten arrangement of the Bridge piece is a published arrangement, for instance.

I think Toru Takemitsu actually achieved what Anton Webern was trying to get at, that is, music which can be appreciated one single note at a time with no sense of time flow. I actually enjoy much of Takemitsu’s music whereas Webern’s music leaves me bewildered and uninvolved. But although the album is named after the Takemitsu piece, it is not the first on the record although I have shown it as such in the heading for descriptive sake. The Takemitsu is actually played between the Britten and the Rota, and it fits perfectly there.

The Enescu is appropriately theatrical, a good prelude. The Sibelius is startlingly vigorous and passionate. The two Britten pieces, especially the unaccompanied elegy, steadily but firmly move us into an introspective mood so that for the Takemitsu we are ready to listen with the crystalline attention required. From that the Rota brings us back with some more symphonic, dramatic, tuneful music in the form of a theme and variations. With the Milhaud we go beyond friendly to the almost comical, with echoes of the best of the Saudades, but coming to a surprisingly dramatic finish, for Milhaud. All the better because the Persichetti, beginning with a long cadenza for solo viola, is the quietest, noblest, most eloquent piece I’ve ever heard from this usually noisy composer; at moments it could be taken for Debussy! The Wieniawski has a nice Nineteenth Century operatic lyricism with moments of heart-throbbing urgency. The Bridge piece (based on a speech where Hamletreflects upon the death of Ophelia) begins in an atonal texture, and then plays with our desire for triads and open intervals by moving between close-in and far-out mystery—demanding, as did the Takemitsu, careful attention and in return giving rich rewards. The Liszt is a late and very moody, reflective work, bringing the recital to an elegiac conclusion.

In the concert hall this would leave us in the mood for some brilliant and rousing encores, but at home I think we can decide for ourselves what, if anything, we want to hear next.

Paul Shoemaker

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Toru TAKEMITSU (1930-1996)
“A Bird came down the Walk” for viola and piano (1995) [6.26]
George ENESCU (1881-1955)
Concert Piece for viola and piano (1906) [8.15]
Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
Rondo for viola and piano (1893) [6.05]
Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
Reflection for viola and piano (1930) [3.35]
Elegy for unaccompanied viola (1930) [6.15]
Nino ROTA (1911-1979)
Intermezzo per viola e pianoforte [7.44]
Darius MILHAUD (1892-1974)
Quatre Visages for viola and piano (1943) [8.49]
Vincent PERSICHETTI (b.1915)
Infanta Marina, Reflections on a Wallace Stevens poem Op. 83 (1960) [9.51]
Henryk WIENIAWSKI (1835-1880
Reverie for viola and piano (1880) [6.52]
Frank BRIDGE (1879-1941)
There is a willow grows aslant a Brook (1927) Arr. Benjamin Britten (1932) [8.15]
Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Romance oubliée for viola and piano (1880) [4.19]