Tempting as it may be to start a review of a solo viola album with a viola joke (and I love me a good viola joke), there is nothing to lark about here. The main reasons are Pemi Paull, a musician who has made a career as a go-to violist in Montréal and Toronto, and his debut album, Musicum Umbrarum.
Before digging into the merits of this album, the musical string family can be summarized as follows: the firstborn violin is the perennial favourite; the showiest of the bunch with the first place ribbons to prove it. The cello is the slightly mysterious one in the family, who read a lot of Dostoyevsky a kid. The bass can pretty much get away with anything with a flex of muscle and, if need be, the threat of violence. The viola, mind you, is the shy misunderstood middle child who never really got a good shake, (or vibrato in this case).
Marsha! Marsha! Marsha!
While this occasion offers a chance to wag a finger for not paying enough attention to the viola, no other instrument shines brighter as the colour between the lines, that without it, would leave a pale outline — an unrealized object — a blurry figure that a good pair of glasses would do wonders for.
Enter Musicum Umbrarum, an album of lesser-known solo viola works released on Métis Island records.
Staying true to the label’s tagline “we fly alone between islands”, you’ll not find any top 40 viola hits here. No Schumann Märchenbilder. No Brahms Sonatas. Nothing famous by Beethoven, Schubert, Dvorák, Mendelssohn, and Vaughan Williams. This is music from (mostly) 20th-century composers, where the palate is darker, anxious, and searching.
Opening with Enescu’s calling “Ménétrier (Impressions d’enfance, op.28)”, this piece shuffles with the favour of a country jamboree. But unlike most fiddle tunes, things turn blue, almost as if to harken back to the secret pain of an off-duty Irish cowboy.
Scott Godin’s Arte Brut inspired “Wolfli Sketches” shows Paull navigating a painfully brooding first movement, through a second movement that transforms the viola into a self-made duet with double stops and harmonics galore. Paull stays true to the colourful mandalas of “the mad genius” Adolf Wölfli, and the playing is just as thoughtful.
Besides the Ligeti Viola Sonata, which could have benefited from more ambiance from Montreal’s Pollack Hall, and added phrasing to allow the labyrinthine of angular lines to move beyond the score, it is Mahler’s “Adagietto” from Symphony No. 5 and Michael Finnissy’s “Obrecht Motteten III” that catch the most attention.
“Obrecht Motteten III” is an ode to the great Flemish-Dutch renaissance composer Jakob Obrecht. It’s an incredible composition which pulls from the same churches that one would have heard Obrecht composing in during the 14th-century. Think expertly drawn with lines that resemble sunlight shining through stained-glass on a Sunday afternoon.
The Mahler wins respect as a boiled down pizzicato arrangement of Mahler’s “Adagietto’ — a love song to his new wife, Alma. It is a perfect encore, and easily the most charming piece on the album.
This debut by Pemi Paull shows a soloist who plays for the right reasons, and offers some much-needed attention on this oft-overlooked instrument in a solo capacity.