The Tertis Project , reviewed by The Record, March 2008
By Marcia Adair
Oft-neglected viola has its day
WATERLOO — A viola recital consisting of solely of music by early 20th century English composers may seem just about as unlikely as the Leafs winning the Stanley Cup. But British violist Roger Chase has proved it can be done, and well.
Chase and pianist Michiko Otaki presented music for viola by Benjamin Dale, Arnold Bax, Bernard Shore and Lionel Tertis as part of his ongoing tour of The Tertis Project in a concert Wednesday evening at the MusicRoom.
English violist Lionel Tertis (1876-1975) considered it his life’s mission to advance the cause of the viola so it would become an equal to the violin and cello. To this end, no instrument’s repertoire was safe from Tertis’ pilfering. In addition to arranging everything he could lay his hands on, Tertis was quite adept at convincing composers to write new works for his instrument. And it is these works that filled the concert program.
Visually, Otaki and Chase are an odd pair. She, at barely five feet, clad in full evening regalia and he at well over six feet with a shock of white hair, sporting a sort of Miro-inspired vest. Aurally, however, they are a great match, with Otaki taking great care not to overshadow the easily coverable viola, a real achievement in such a small space.
Chase opened the program with a short trifle by Benjamin Dale called English Dance. The piece is a setting of bawdy songs sung by Bertie Wooster types in Edwardian London gentlemen’s clubs.
Although short on substance, the piece gave the first taste of the instrument’s impressive upper register tone. Chase is playing on Tertis’ favourite viola and it is easy to see why the instrument was so cherished. Because it is held under the chin, the physics of the viola’s sound production are not optimal. It is, therefore, quite rare to find an instrument that is rich and dark in the lower register but still sweet and responsive on the upper strings.
The Ballad from Group II of the Suite for Viola and Piano by Ralph Vaughan Williams was the perfect vehicle for Chase to show off his finest skill: truly beautiful sound. Inspired by the Border Counties, a place for which Chase clearly has great affection, the Ballad was simply mesmerizing. The Moto Perpetuo was less successful. Intonation was a little hairy in the upper positions and although Chase shaped the constant incessant sixteenth notes well, he would have benefited from a little more oomph from Otaki.
It was clear from the first notes that both Chase and Otaki were completely enamoured by Arnold Bax’ Sonata for Viola and Piano and well they should be. It is a brilliantly composed piece with both instruments scored as equals. And the move from accompanist to soloist and back again was effortless.
Chase dazzled the audience with extended double stop passages, spot on octaves and heroic journeys up the entire length of the A string. The Romance from Benjamin Dale’s Suite for Viola and Piano Op 2 was Tertis’ favourite encore. It is quite lovely in its own way and received an intelligently nuanced performance from Chase. Regrettably, the sonata’s outer movements are rather laborious and overlong, a circumstance that was not mitigated by a committed interpretation.
Two delightful miniatures, Scherzo by Chase’s teacher Bernard Shore and Sunset by Lionel Tertis himself, closed the program. Free from the technical acrobatics of the previous pieces, Chase instead enchanted with genuine affection and that trademark beautiful sound.