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LEBRECHT LISTENS | Jordan Bak’s Cantabile For Viola Reveals The Neglected Instrument’s Beauty

By Norman Lebrecht on April 12, 2024

Violist Jordan Bak (Photo courtesy of the artist)
Violist Jordan Bak (Photo courtesy of the artist)

Cantabile: Anthems for Viola (Delphian)


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I was never a fan of viola jokes.

Just because the instrument is neither one thing nor the other doesn’t make it any funnier than a mezzo-soprano or a bass-baritone. It is what it is, with benefits. The viola spares you squeaky irritations of a violin and lugubrious growls of a mishandled cello.

I like the viola. There, I’ve said it.

What’s special about this release is the eclectic menu assembled by a young Jamaican-American, Jordan Bak, who is clearly going places. Bak opens with a three-minute Chant by Jonathan Harvey, dinking back and forth between tonal and post-tonal contemplation. A Romance by Ralph Vaughan Williams, discovered among posthumous papers, is just what I need in these stressed-out times.

Bright Sheng reimagines a South China folksong about a woman missing her lover in moonlight. It’s called The Stream Flows and it has vivid imagery. Augusta Read Thomas has made several alternate versions of her successful 2018 Song Without Words. The viola original still works best.

The album’s two most substantive, and sumptuous, pieces are by British composers. Arnold Bax’s viola sonata of 1922 is massively mellifluous, rippling with tunes that sound half-remembered and might even be original. Imagine Copland and Holst taking a country walk. The finale is so satisfying.

Benjamin Britten’s Lachrymae: Reflections on a song of Dowland is at once deceptive and self-revealing. Britten uses only the first phrase of Dowland’s song but he enters so fully into the Tudor’s composer’s dolorous outlook that the two composers feel like brothers across two Elizabethan ages. Britten’s erudition, his elegance, his improvisational inspiration, power this piece like a runaway truck. Bak is skilled enough to bring it under control, and then some. His pianist, Richard Uttley, is daringly empathetic.

If you don’t love viola, you will after hearing this.

To read more from Norman Lebrecht, subscribe to Slippedisc.com.


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