David Aaron Carpenter Elgar & Schnittke Viola Concertos Review

Released 2009.  

BBC Review

Prepare to be disarmed by a remarkable debut.

Andrew McGregor 2009

Why would you want to listen to a performance of Elgar’s Cello Concerto arranged for the viola?! Ultimately, only you can answer that question, and I started this journey with a mixture of curiosity and suspicion, only to be disarmed by a remarkable debut.

The arrangement first: it’s by the great British viola player Lionel Tertis, and Elgar approved, even conducting Tertis’s performance. But I should say it’s based on Tertis’s version, as the soloist here, 23 year-old New Yorker David Aaron Carpenter has made a number of changes of his own: “More attuned to what Elgar actually wrote,” he says. 

I wasn’t expecting the breadth of the concerto’s opening to be as successfully captured, not just in Carpenter’s plangent, vocal sound, but with the intimate warmth of the Philharmonia, and Christoph Eschenbach’s effortless accompaniment. It doesn’t really feel as though it’s been stolen and adapted from the bigger instrument, and even the pizzicato chords have a surprising resonance; there are just one or two changes of register that are still startling, no matter how well Carpenter and Tertis combine to avoid them.  

So I made it, with pleasure, to the end of the Elgar, and if I hadn’t I might not have heard what follows: an extraordinarily moving and self-assured account of the Viola Concerto by Alfred Schnittke. Carpenter’s teacher, the Russian viola player Yuri Bashmet, commissioned it, and Schnittke finished in 1985 before succumbing just days later to the incapacitating stroke that was to paralyse his creativity in his final years. The Viola Concerto builds on the Soviet legacies of Prokofiev and Shostakovich’s concertos, while following Hindemith’s example in leaving the violins out of the orchestra, helping the solo viola cut through the sometimes dense textures with its mixture of strength, sweetness, wistful melancholy, bitter regret and violent anger.

If you’re unmoved by the hopeless beauty of the ending, then back to the Elgar with you, but it’s the stunning conviction and searing performance of the Schnittke that’s going to keep me returning to this one, a recording whose intimate focus on the soloist enhances his impact here. What a debut.

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