By Inge Kjemtrup | From the November-December 2021 issue of Strings magazine
The first recording from violist Emma Wernig adds another layer to the rich musical torte that is Vienna. The Viennese Viola (Champs Hill Records) opens with the expressive Viola Sonata in A major by Hans Gál (1890–1987), an Austrian Jew who fled his homeland for the United Kingdom in 1938, eventually settling in Edinburgh. Robert Fuchs (1847–1927), who was admired by Brahms, is represented by his Viola Sonata in D minor and the diverting Six Fantasy Pieces. The recording closes with four songs by that most Viennese of all composers, Franz Schubert.
There’s a lyricism to all of the pieces, which are warmly played by Wernig and pianist Albert Cano Smit. Although they knew each other at the Colburn Conservatory in Los Angeles, the 22-year-old Wernig and 24-year-old Cano Smit didn’t launch their partnership until this project. “A perfect way to start a collaboration,” says Cano Smit. The disc came about as a result of Wernig’s victory at the 2017 Cecil Aronowitz International Viola Competition and was recorded in August 2019.
Wernig, in Berlin, and Cano Smit, in Barcelona, shared their thoughts about the new recording.
How did you arrive at the Viennese theme for your first recording?
Emma Wernig: I knew I wanted it to be a personal disc. My father is Austrian, my mother is German, and I grew up in America, so I wanted the disc to show me as a born-and-raised Californian connecting to works that had to do with my upbringing. I grew up speaking German and spent many summers and winters in the Austrian Alps, where my grandmother lives and where my father grew up. Discovering this repertoire, and being so familiar with the beautiful landscape and the culture, helped me revisit truly wonderful childhood memories.
Every time I play a ländler [an Austrian folk dance], I think about mushroom hunting in the Alps with my grandmother, or running across a mountain field at dawn to feel the dew on my feet. My paternal grandfather, Otto, was a great lover of classical music and passed away when I was young, so I found this music to be a special way to connect to him as well. Growing up in Los Angeles, I always felt a pull to Europe and that was, in a way, my true home, so I used classical music as a way to explore my Austro-German heritage and this disc specifically to get to know music I feel naturally close to.
Tell me how you picked the specific repertoire.
[EW] I found the Fuchs Sonata first. I immediately thought, “Why isn’t this played more, and recorded more often?” I wanted it to be the cornerstone of the disc. From there I started searching: what else is Austrian; what else fits with it? I thought I would love to record some Schubert songs, which are not often played on viola and work so beautifully for the instrument. I just happened upon the Gál sonata. The Six Fantasy Pieces by Fuchs tie in very well between the Schubert songs and the larger sonatas.
When did you start work on the music?
[EW] We began by performing the Gál sonata, the most uncharted territory musically for both of us. Then Albert left to go to Juilliard, and we had a long-distance musical relationship where I’d fly to New York for a few days and we would work really intensely. We would go to Yale and play for violist Ettore Causa. The summer before we record- ed, we were both in Verbier [the music festival in Switzerland].
Albert Cano Smit: We would meet, rehearse, and then have the time for the pieces to get into our system. It was interesting, every time, to find how things changed since the last meeting.
It does feel like a snapshot of that time in my life, and I feel like a different player now.—Emma Wernig
Though written in 1942, Gál’s Viola Sonata seems from an earlier era. Do you think there is a Viennese style that links all the composers on the disc?
[EW] We found that Gál’s musical language was not as clear as the other works because it is so much later, but it does have a certain timeless quality. That being said, there are little ländler influences and you can hear the Austria-ness of it, but I don’t think that it jumps out at you as much as the lyricism. It does have a nostalgic quality and a lightness that the other works also have.
One hears so much Brahms in Fuchs’ music. Is the music written well for the viola?
[EW] Fuchs and Brahms were colleagues and friends, and Brahms was a fan of Fuchs’ work. Fuchs was a theorist and a pianist, and you really feel that he gave the viola almost as many notes as the piano in his sonatas! So it doesn’t always fit into the hands so comfortably. It’s very pianistic, yet so incredibly expressive. It gives such an opportunity to be able to play completely equally. It really feels like chamber music.
What are your thoughts about the Gál sonata?
[EW] Very lyrical; it felt almost vocal to me. Also not so comfortable, as the tonality is ambiguous. It leaves a lot more room to create your own vision of what you want to come across. We had a lot of fun trying to decipher it in that way.
Schubert wrote over 600 songs—how did you narrow it down to four? Did you need to alter the parts substantially to make them work for viola and piano?
[EW] Albert and I read many, many Schubert songs to see which ones would work best.
[ACS] It was like a little competition to see which Schubert song would make it! There are so many songs that are practically unknown and quite amazing too. Arranging was not the most challenging part, because the viola is so close to the human voice. We tried to think how we could portray the text musically in ways other than words. We would use a different articulation, or Emma would use different colors or play in a different octave the second time if the song repeated. I sometimes left out certain notes if they were in the exact same register of the viola. Of course, you respect that it’s a song first, but then you have to make it sound as good as possible as a viola-and-piano piece.
[EW] I played from a vocal score and handwrote anything that I did differently. I always had the words in front of me, even when we were recording. The Schubert songs were definitely the hardest to record and took the longest, even though they were the shortest.
Why do you think that was?
[EW] I think there’s a certain pressure that comes with recording something so precious. You can feel much more free if it’s a piece that isn’t known, where your interpretation can be the interpretation or one of a few. With Schubert, you feel it has to be perfect and precious in its own way.
What was the recording session like?
[EW] We had three days at Champs Hill in East Sussex. The house has a famous garden and a music room for concerts and recordings. It was a really idyllic setting to record this kind of music: very peaceful, very family style, with home-cooked meals and such. On breaks, we would walk around the gardens—sometimes individually when we needed our space. Working with Patrick Allen, the recording engineer, was just such a blessing. He really made us feel comfortable and was so kind, so patient with us, but also made us feel respected and celebrated.
How did you decide which piece to record first?
[EW] Patrick told us to start with what we felt most comfortable with, so we started with the Gál as it’s what we had been working on the longest. After the first day he said, “Oh, this is going to be a breeze.” And then we weren’t listening back so much. We were just playing, and it felt very easy and free.
On the second and third days, when we were getting into the other works, the days became more stressful. Regardless, it’s such an amazing opportunity to come as close as possible to your ideal version. It was very nice to be able to listen back and ask, “Hmm, how can we make this even better?” It was a completely collaborative process. We could all listen and then just share opinions about in which take we felt this worked better and in which take we felt that worked better.
When you listen to the recording, are you happy with what you did two years ago?
[ACS] Sometimes I randomly text Emma saying I just listened to the CD and it sounds great!
[EW] I remember listening all the way through the master and being happy with what we had accomplished for ourselves, with the effort we put in and the result. It does feel like a snapshot of that time in my life, and I feel like a different player now. But it’s wonderful and I’m so excited for these pieces to surface and to have them heard.
Emma, tell me about the viola you played for the recording and your new instrument.
[EW] The one I recorded on was made in 2012 by [New York–based luthier] Jason Viseltear. The viola I play on now is also by Viseltear, from 2019, but it sounds and looks completely different. You would never know it was by the same maker. There was always something very beautiful and mellow about the sound that spoke to me in his instruments.
What bow are you using?
[EW] Both of my bows are Morizot.
Things have changed a lot since your recording session in 2019.
[EW] The disc was supposed to be released last year around March. The world had other plans. I much prefer to have it released now when people can enjoy it. I was in Los Angeles for the majority of the pandemic and Albert was in Barcelona.
[ACS] In March, I was here for a concert and then I just ended up staying longer. Then I had an accident and injured my thumb. I couldn’t play for a few months. Now it’s fine, but like for everyone, it seems like it’s been one strange long week and at the same time, like it’s been ten years, like a different world.
[EW] Had it been a different two years, I wonder if I would feel as different as a player and person now. Going through the pandemic, everyone had to undergo some sort of deep change within themselves and re-examine all kinds of things. Everyone is altered by this experience. That makes the recording a time capsule in a whole other kind of way. Pre-pandemic. Another world.
How did you cope during the height of the pandemic?
[ACS] Musicians often say that what they struggled with most in the first few years is they suddenly had so many concerts pushed upon them. They didn’t have time to grow and change, which at this age is very important. We were in the middle of this huge human tragedy, but it was a blessing to have some time to just work on yourself without the pressure of having a concert coming up. Certainly
Zoom lessons helped me to stay in some kind of normalcy when there were no concerts.
[EW] Just before the pandemic, I got a new instrument. I was really grateful for the time to get used to a whole new sound. Anyone who switches to a new instrument knows the time it takes to really feel comfortable. I was grateful to not have to be anywhere in public for a little while. The pandemic also made me appreciate family and home and friends more. I finished up on the East Coast and made a move to Berlin halfway through the year. I think this time showed us that there is no time like the present. It made us all braver in some ways, where we felt like life is short and it’s good to go after things that you maybe otherwise wouldn’t. I’m very happy that I’m here now and things seem to be moving forward. I sense that some people really want to get back to being as busy as possible, but I find myself being much more comfortable with, and even seeking out, chances to make sure that I have time to rest and reflect.