Dana Zemtsov: Romantic Metamorphoses
In some respects, this is a very personal disc. It aims, we are told, to explore the ‘many and often subtle definitions’ of the word ‘romantic’ as expressed in music for viola and piano. So the Sonata by Vieuxtemps, one of the iconic performer-composers of the Romantic movement, is placed alongside works born of a romantic fascination with Asia and Spain by Bloch and Bizet respectively. At its centre, however, is a family love story: Dana Zemtsov’s grandfather, Russian composer Evgeni Zemtsov, wrote Melodie im alten Stil to woo her grandmother, also a viola player.
Bloch’s travelogue, tracing an evolutionary parabola from ‘primitive’ jungle life to imperial China, is the great work here. We know it better in its revised version as the Suite for viola and orchestra, though the original, with its striking piano-writing, all swaying Impressionist chords and pointillistic flourishes, is exceptionally beautiful. Bloch gives equal weight to both players, and Zemtsov’s understated virtuosity is admirably balanced by the detailed refinement of Cathelijne Noorland’s pianism.
Vieuxtemps and Evgeni Zemtsov, meanwhile, adopt a conventional view of the viola as melancholic, most famously embodied, perhaps, in Berlioz’s Harold en Italie. Written after a stroke cut short his career as a violin virtuoso, Vieuxtemps’s Sonata looks back nostalgically to Schumann, who much admired him in his heyday. Melodie in alten Stil is a lyrical vocalise, timeless and elegant, rather than rooted in pastiche. Zemtsov plays both with beguiling warmth. Melodie gives Noorland little to do, though Vieuxtemps presents her with piano-writing at once difficult and ungrateful, which she tackles with considerable finesse. The Bizet-Waxman Carmen Fantasy comes in a transcription by Mihail Kugel that doesn’t really work. It shows off Zemtsov’s formidable technique to perfection, though the piano reduction makes it sound curiously trite.