The Viola As Fine Wine

Over the weekend, Shirley and I attended a concert by violinist and violist Andrew McIntosh. For three of the four pieces, McIntosh was accompanying by Gayle Blankenburg on the piano. The unaccompanied piece was “Sonata for solo viola (1991-1994)” by György Ligeti. According to the program, Ligeti said of the viola,

The viola is seemingly just a big violin tuned a fifth lower. In reality the two instruments are worlds apart, although they both have three strings in common, A, D, and G string. The high E string lends the violin a powerful luminosity and metallic penetrating tone, which is missing in the viola. The violin leads, the viola remains in the shade. In return the low C string gives the viola a unique acerbity – compact, somewhat hoarse, with the aftertaste of wood, earth and tannic acid.

As a once aspiring violinist and violist myself, I was doing find with this until György Ligeti migrated his explanation from sound to taste. Any yet, I do understand the comparison. Viola solos are uncommon and in my opining always welcome. It was too bad that we couldn’t sip fine wine while we listened.
György Ligeti’s “Sonata for solo viola” is a very complex, long and difficult piece that in places can makeup its mind as to whether it is baroque music or new music. Much of it is in double stop – two strings played at the same time. If it weren’t for the “aftertaste of wood, earth and tannic acid” some of incredibly high harmonics might be better suited for the violin. And yet, I think there was a completeness to it all that I rather enjoyed even if some of the individual elements were somewhat trying. McIntosh, who, based on the evening’s program, specializes in very difficult numbers, performed the piece about as well as it can be preformed.
Our favorite piece of the evening was Schurbert’s “Fantasy in C Major,” another piece with extreme technical difficulty. McIntosh and Blankenburg presented us with a wonderful performance.