Violist Diaz offers a stellar stand-in turn for Friends of Chamber Music

By Lawrence Budmen

Violist Roberto Diaz performed a recital for Friends of Chamber Music Tuesday night at Coral Gables Congregational Church. Photo: J Henry Fair

When the Czech-based Prazak Quartet cancelled an American tour due to the illness of one of its members, Friends of Chamber Music president Julian Kreeger prevailed upon violist Roberto Diaz, who had been scheduled to join the group for Brahms’ Viola Quintet, to give a recital. Diaz’s solo turn on Tuesday night mixed two rarely played scores by twentieth-century composers with two arrangements of works originally conceived for voice and clarinet. The pieces written for the viola easily trumped the refits and were the high points of a stimulating program.

Former principal viola of the Philadelphia Orchestra, President of the Curtis Institute and an esteemed pedagogue, Diaz is one of the finest exponents of his instrument. Opening with his father’s transcription of Manuel de Falla’s Suite Populare Espagnole, the depth of expression and large, vibrant resonance of Diaz’s playing swept through the sanctuary of Coral Gables Congregational Church.  Thinning down his tone to the sparest thread, Diaz elegantly traced the “Cancion” while “Asturiana” soared with aching sadness. Pianist Gloria Chien, a member of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, was his attentive, at times emphatic collaborator.

Paul Hindemith’s unaccompanied Viola Sonata No. 1 was the first of seven the composer wrote for the instrument. An accomplished violist and chamber player, Hindemith was unsparing in his technical demands. The sonata’s opening movement is a Bachian prelude that takes the instrument to its highest range, testing the player’s precision and control. An imitation of gypsy violin fireworks in the fourth section is a tour de force, tossed off with speed and panache by Diaz. Two Langsam movements form the score’s core. These unhurried lamentations brought a deep well of intense emotion from Diaz, his dark tone carrying the long limbed melodic fragments. Short, bristling thematic motifs and the restless contrapuntal invention so typical of Hindemith surge through this superbly wrought score.

Brahms’ Viola Sonata No. 2 in E-flat Major was one of two originally written for clarinet and later reset by the composer. Deeply autumnal and impassioned, this music soars with Brahmsian melodies.  Although this score is more malleable in transcription than the first clarinet sonata, Brahms’ arrangement does not always sit well on the instrument, the molten tones of the viola not always comfortable with the writing in the highest and lowest registers as the more plangent sonorities of the clarinet.  Diaz and Chien offered an energetic, professional reading of this problematical hybrid. If the performance sometimes wanted greater smoothness or ease, much of the problem lay with Brahms.

Ernest Bloch’s Suite for viola and piano was the winner of a contest in 1919 for a solo viola work, sponsored by fabled arts patroness Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge. One of the last century’s most original compositional voices, Bloch composed music of daunting complexity, often with a decisively Judaic cast.

Attempting to meld Asian influences into his musical palette, Bloch conceived a bracing four-movement suite, pentatonic scales and dissonant chords sharing space with richly chromatic harmonies. Originally titled “Home of the Sun,” the final Molto vivo may sound like a Hollywood evocation of China, but this was before the age of film music. Bloch’s score is a melodic and harmonic feast that treads fresh paths. Kudos to Diaz and Chen for reviving this terrific piece in an exciting, colorful performance.

Friends of Chamber Music’s next concert is 8 p.m. January 9, 2013 at the University of Miami’s Gusman Concert Hall features the Kalichstein Laredo Robinson Trio playing works by Beethoven, Previn and Tchaikovsky.

Posted in Performances

One Response to “Violist Diaz offers a stellar stand-in turn for Friends of Chamber Music”

  1. Posted Oct 31, 2012 at 1:58 pm by Jack Firestone

    A truly stellar evening. This is one of the great chamber music series in the country. Those who miss these concerts are missing some of the best performances Miami has to offer.

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Wed Oct 31, 2012
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