Viola music in the North Atlantic

The viola has a really small repertoire. Well, so they say! It’s really exciting to discover how much viola music has been written in or by composers from Scotland, the Faroe Islands, Iceland and Greenland/Denmark.

Perhaps the viola has a natural affinity with the north: the muted colours, darkness, a certain quiet expressiveness. When I say muted, though, I don’t mean that either the viola or the landscapes are dull. Quite the opposite. The reason I get so cross with people who think we suffer violin envy (Classic FM!) is that the viola is a totally different instrument. To me, it has a much broader palette than the violin: every string sounds different, allowing us to be melancholy, playful, bright, proud…  The list goes on!

DSCN1627 DSCN1774Likewise, the landscapes of the north may not be as immediately colourful as, say, the Mediterranean, but look deeper and there is so much to enjoy. I remember getting off the plane in Kulusuk, Greenland, and thinking how bleak it looked. It didn’t take long for that impression to evaporate. Soon my eye was attuned to the glacier mint blue of small icebergs, the tiny little willow trees soaking up the July sun and the burst of colour from ground-hugging alpine flowers.

So many composers write nothing but elegies and laments for the viola. We can be happy people, too, you know! Again, it seems composers from the far north understand this better than many.  Faroese composer Kristian Blak’s Tistram is playful. Oliver Kentish, working in Iceland, wrote a wonderful sonata for solo viola. It starts with a winsome falling phrase, but the final perpetuum mobile passage is full of energy with its lively cross rhythms.

This week I’m learning Dane Poul Ruders “Autumn Collection.” Rouders has written two viola concertos and is one of the best contemporary composers for the instrument. The “Autumn Collection” is a set of 6 pieces, some technically very challenging. He draws an amazing variety of sounds from the instrument. In fact once I know the piece better, it probably deserves a blog of its own!