Inverne Price's James Inverne talked about the viola's past - and its future - with Carpenter...
JI: So you believe that the viola's relatively small repertoire, at least as far as the standard canon of acknowledged 'greats' is concerned, is almost an accident of history?
DAC: Well, historically the violin and piano were always the most celebrated solo instruments. At least, they were expected to be standard solo instruments. Great virtuosi emerged for them, while there were limited numbers of violists of that calibre, and so one way for the composers to find an audience for their music was to give it to these star soloists. But it's sometimes forgotten that Joachim and Paganini were great violists as well as violinists, and many of the great composers have been proficient in the viola - Monteverdi, Handel, Beethoven, Paganini as I said, Mozart, Hindemith. Dvorak was a professional violist in orchestras in Prague. The list goes on and on.
All of which suggests that the reason they wrote so much music for violin and piano has to do with the famous soloists of the day. If we'd had champions of the viola at the time with large audiences we would have had more jewels in the viola repertoire.
JI: Yet there are more than are commonly played, correct? You've just recorded three of them, for Ondine...
DAC: There are thousands of works written for violists, though many haven't been found. And yes, a good example is the works to which you refer, three concertos by Joseph Martin Kraus who was nicknamed "the Swedish Mozart". The fact that these concertos were just discovered, wrongly catalogued, in a library in Germany, proves what an incredible amount of music there is out there. It needs champions of the viola to find and perform them. There also, by the same token, plenty of great viola concertos from various periods that we do have - just take a look on Wikipedia! - but few are ever programmed. It's time to take a strident leap and let the viola find the place is deserves as a true solo instrument.
JI: Is this why you transcribe favourite concertos composed for other instruments, as a way for the instrument to grab the spotlight?
DAC: There's an interesting historical argument to be made that, as I say, composers gave works to the star musicians of their day and so it was about getting the music performed rather than the specific instruments it was given to. Look at the Dvorak Cello Concerto from the violist's point of view, look at its range - it's perfect for a violist, extremely comfortable, whereas for a cellist it's a bit awkward. You can almost see Dvorak's thought patterns and perhaps he picked up his viola and played a few notes from time to time while he was composing it. There are various similar instances where I feel the composers would have had their violas to hand. Because also the viola is the middle voice of the orchestra, in terms of physical placing and of sound. It sees what the other instruments are doing and the viola gives you a great all-round understanding.
But I only transcribe when there's a written sanction from the composer himself. With the Elgar Cello Concerto, Lionel Tertis asked Elgar if he could write the transcription and Elgar gave him permission. And then Elgar wrote to Tertis after the performance applauding the violist's work and saying how well it worked for the viola. So to see a letter like that is to understand how the composers felt about issues of sonority. And if you understand sonority, surely you better understand the composer. Why did Beethoven transcribe the violin concerto for piano? Why did Bach transcribe works? It brings us back to that central debate - did they write for a soloist they were fond of or were they inspired by an instrument?
And to come back to your question, to encourage presenters to take a chance of giving violists the stage, works that are recognisable make a real impression - staple repertoire but with a different sonority. From there, well, the viola repertoire is there and we violists want to put out all this incredible music that hasn't been heard!
David Aaron Carpenter is represented by Inverne Price for general management and for public relations. For enquiries please contact James Inverne (email@example.com) or Robert Norman (firstname.lastname@example.org) in the UK, or Patricia Price in the US (email@example.com ).