Violist Makes Bold Solo Venture From Bach To Moderns

For his solo viola album, Spanish artist Jesus Rudolfo has undertaken the challenge of a daunting Bach sonata originally written for violin, in addition to original viola works by Hindemith and Ligeti. (Lucerne Festival photo)

Transfixing Metamorphosis. Bach: Violin Sonata No. 3 in C major, S. 1005. Hindemith: Sonata for Solo Viola, Op. 11, No. 5. Ligeti: Sonata for Solo Viola. Jesus Rodolfo, viola. Odradek ODRCD367. Total Time: 63:21.

By Paul E. Robinson

DIGITAL REVIEW – J.S. Bach’s Sonata in C major for unaccompanied violin is one of the most difficult works in the violin repertoire. Among its formidable challenges is the second movement, one of the longest fugues Bach ever wrote. The chords and string crossings throughout the work require exceptional physical dexterity. The piece is daunting even for the finest violinists. For a violist to take it on is to multiply the difficulties several-fold. The larger size of the instrument makes the string crossings considerably harder.

Although Spanish violist Jesus Rodolfo, 31, is a gifted performer, he does not convince me that this great Bach work makes much sense in a transcription for viola. The string crossings in the first movement Adagio sound labored and unpleasant, and while he perseveres valiantly through the fugue, his playing sounds unnecessarily effortful. That said, in the final Allegro assai, it is impressively virtuosic.

Stylistically, Rodolfo has chosen to play Bach in a modern, that is to say, historically informed fashion, using very little vibrato. This interpretive choice does not work in his favor, especially in slow-moving passages where without vibrato the music often seems dry and inexpressive.

In Paul Hindemith’s Sonata for Solo Viola, Op. 11, No. 5, dating from 1919, when the composer was 24 years old and very active as a performer, Rodolfo is on much firmer ground. Hindemith himself was an expert violist. During this period he wrote numerous works for the viola, some unaccompanied and others with piano. His most important viola piece is undoubtedly the 1935 concerto, Der Schwanendreher. This Op. 11 sonata is mostly dissonant and forbidding. Although there is no program attached, it feels angry, and lyrical passages are few and far between. Most ambitious is the last movement, in the form of a passacaglia.

Ligeti’s Viola Sonata of 1966 is far more approachable, with elements of Romanian folk songs and even a touch of jazz. The first movement consists of one long, sad melody, perfectly suited to the viola’s timbre, in its middle register. Curiously, while Hindemith opted for the passacaglia form in the last movement of his sonata, Ligeti chooses the closely related chaconne form for his finale. Both movements end quietly, but with Ligeti we get a feeling of inevitability lacking in the Hindemith, which just sort of peters out.

In this CD, Jesus Rodolfo presents himself both as a consummate technician on his instrument and as an uncompromising programmer. It is not easy to make a career as a solo violist because the repertoire for the viola is so limited, compared to that for the violin. Rodolfo deserves credit for at least examining the possibility of playing unaccompanied Bach on his instrument and for revisiting substantial viola pieces by major 20th century composers. Curiously, on a CD devoted exclusively to pieces for unaccompanied viola, the booklet includes credits both for a piano (Steinway D) and a piano technician (Luigi Fusco). It also errs in giving Ligeti’s sonata the Hindemith sonata opus number.

Paul E. Robinson is a Canadian conductor and broadcaster and the author of four books on conductors. He writes regularly about music for and