Review: 3 Viola Recitals Showcase the Instrument’s Versatility

Album reviews for Dana Zemtsov’s ‘Romantic Metamorphoses,’ Teng Li’s ‘1939,’ and Tabea Zimmermann’s ‘Romance oubilée’

In three splendid recitals, violists Dana Zemtsov, Teng Li, and Tabea Zimmermann lay claim to a selection of mostly unfamiliar viola repertoire, both original and arranged, that seems especially suited to their instrument’s passionate, dusky voice and implied spiritual leanings.

On Romantic Metamorphoses, Zemtsov—4 by pianist Cathelijne Noorland—plays Vieuxtemps’ magnificent Viola Sonata Op. 36 with an intoxicating sweep and a wide range of color and dynamics; illuminates the gentle beauties of her grandfather Evgeni Zemtsov’s Melodie im alten Stil (written to declare his love for his eventual bride); scores brilliantly in Ernest Bloch’s dramatically nativistic Viola Suite; and suggests that Waxman’s Carmen Fantasy makes most sense when played by the viola’s mezzo-soprano voice.

On 1939, the Toronto Symphony’s principal viola Teng Li, with pianist Meng-Chieh Liu and violinist Benjamin Bowman, plays music written in the year World War II broke out. Two of the composers would die in concentration camps. Both Viktor Ullmann’s Five Love Songs and Gideon Klein’s Duo for violin and viola are touching miniatures lent heightened poignancy by their composers’ fate. In comparison, Hindemith’s Sonata in C major (which inspired the recording) and Joseph Jongen’s Concertino Op. 111, despite their lovely ideas and wonderful performances, seem beside the point, while Yanjun Hua’s The Moon Reflected in Er-Quan, depicts the hardships and misery of a blind musician’s life, and makes more sense on the Chinese erhu for which it was written.


On Romance oubliée, Tabea Zimmermann, with pianist Thomas Hoppe, shows  the mastery that has made her one of the world’s top violists. The music is less memorable perhaps than the pieces chosen by her younger colleagues, and the motivation seems less personal, but her tone is so exquisitely crafted and her phrasing and sense of timing so profound that the quiet romantic miniatures by Hans Sitt, Glazunov, Vierne, Vieuxtemps, Wieniawski, Liszt, Kreisler, and Kodaly take on a quiet grandeur all their own.

Romantic Metamorphoses Dana Zemtsov, viola (Channel Classics)

1939 Teng Li, viola (Azica)

Romance oubliée Tabea Zimmermann, viola (Myrios Classics)