Cathy Basrak, the 23-year-old newly appointed assistant principal violist of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and principal violist of the Boston Pops Orchestra, makes her recording debut with an all-American program of attractive twentieth-century chamber music that’s rarely heard - and largely unfamiliar even to many violists.
Rochberg’s Sonata, a highly expressive, romantic work from his post-serial period, is lyrical yet intellectually stimulating. It was commissioned to celebrate the 75th birthday of viola phenomenon William Primrose.
Jacobi’s 1941 Fantasy for Viola and Piano synthesizes classical, romantic, and modern influences with melodies that recall Jacobi’s Jewish heritage. Ms. Basrak calls the Fantasy "the most difficult piece I’ve played on the viola." Likening it to Paganini’s violin music, she says it demands virtuosic playing and dramatic expression extending to "all extremes of the spectrum."
The most familiar work on the album (other than the Rochberg) is Shulman’s Theme and Variations. A fixture of the standard viola repertoire, it’s unabashedly romantic in style but rich in substance. Impressionistic reveries alternate with rapid-fire passages of daunting difficulty. (In 1999, Ms. Basrak performed the orchestral version as soloist with the Philadelphia Orchestra and conductor Luis Biava -- the result of her having won a student competition.)
Porter, a Connecticut native who studied composition in Paris with Vincent D’Indy, wrote extensively for strings. His sunny Speed Etude, commissioned as a virtuosic tour de force for Paul Doktor, is infused with an ebullient postwar optimism.
Liebermann’s Sonata for Viola and Piano is an enchanting piece that’s by turns ethereal and jazzy. Hailed as "one of America’s most gifted ’new tonalist’ composers" (Time), the 39-year old New Yorker’s music has been performed by Mstislav Rostropovich, James Galway, James Levine, and Leonard Slatkin.
Ms. Basrak assembled the program herself after combing music libraries for substantial viola pieces by American composers. "My orchestral colleagues and friends weren’t familiar with a lot of this work," Ms. Basrak says. "They were inspired to know there is American music of this quality [for viola]." To gain insights, she met with two of the three living composers represented on the recording Mr. Rochberg and Mr. Liebermann and corresponded with the ailing Mr. Shulman’s son Jay. "The whole experience amounted to so much more than finding music music to put on a recording," she says. "It was more of a personal journey." She recalls Mr. Rochberg’s passionate enthusiasm for his sonata: "He had such commitment to what he had written," she says. "He related his music to me as if he had written it yesterday. It was still so fresh in his mind."