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Esther van Stralen - viola

$23   (Australian dollars)


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Esther van Stralen is the Dutch-born Principal Violist with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. Her wide-ranging repertoire interests have driven the selection of music in this recording, which ranges from stylistically rendered earlier works performed on a baroque viola, to a huge variety of contemporary music.

John CageDream for viola and viola ensemble
Heinrich Alois PraegerTwelve Easy Preludes
Carl VineMiniature I for solo viola
Gordon KerryEtude for solo viola
Krzysztof PendereckiCadenza for solo viola
Myriam MarbePrologo and Aria for viola and tape
Benjamin BrittenElegy
Carl VineMiniature II for two violas
Georg Philipp TelemannFantasia no 7
Astor Piazzolla3 Tango Studies


Fantasies - in what sense are we to take the title? The Harry-Potterish cover of Esther van Strahlen's disc gives the clue, and her autobiographical note spells it out. Life's an inspiration; the kids are adorable; career's going great guns; and, with "almost all my Fantasies fulfilled; those left are presented by the collection of pieces on this CD: I love them dearly." All to the good, for some of the repertoire is decidedly unlovable.

Full of conviction and gritty assertiveness, van Stralen's playing leaves one in no doubt that she put her heart into this compilation of works for unaccompanied viola, eight of them twentieth-century compositions. The programme certainly needs all her powers of projection for, with the exception of the opening and closing items, Cage's Dream and Astor Piazzolla Tango Studies respectively, van Stralen's reportorial 'fantasies' turn out to be weighted rather towards the introspective and dour end of the expressive spectrum.

Alert to the need for some relief from the over earnest quality of most of the twentieth-century offerings, van Stralen intersperses them with a selection of short preludes, all but one under two minutes duration, by the early nineteenth-century Dutch composer Heinrich Alois Praeger. These unassuming essays, of greater historical than musical interest, rarely rise above the workmanlike; they do serve the purpose, though, of providing a sorbet to refresh the aural palate.

A certain variability in the quality of recorded sound is perhaps to be expected given that the disc is a compilation of recordings made in different venues over a period of four years. Overall, there seems to have been a desire on the part of the sound engineers to compensate for the viola 's naturally unassertive timbre by boosting its resonance and broadening the ambient sound. Unfortunately, in the case of the Praeger, the over-close miking creates the impression of amplification in a wind tunnel.

One wouldn't normally think of Cage and Britten as congenial musical bedfellows, but on this disc they are felicitously yoked together. Britten's Elegy (1930) and Cage's Dream (1948), though worlds apart aesthetically, stand out from the other offerings by the sheer persuasiveness of their musical statements. Anyone doubting the validity of comparing Britten to Mendelssohn in terms of teenage precocity need only listen to this extraordinarily assured piece. Van Stralen has a sure feel for its overwrought, impassioned eloquence. So, too, in her performance of Karen Phillip's arrangement of Cage's piece for viola and viola ensemble, there is a winning charm and authoritative ease. In this most effective arrangement, Dream conjures up more of an Arvo Pärt than a John Cage of yore.

It is hard to wax enthusiastic about the Australian compositions. Carl Vine's Miniatures I and II lack the Cartesque rhythmic buoyancy that makes the third of his Miniatures such a delight. And in Gordon Kerry's Etude we find this usually lyrical composer in rather desiccated mode, meandering around in search of profundity. Penderecki's Cadenza, a stand-alone piece extracted from his 1983 Viola Concerto, is an uneven work, strong on atmospherics and arresting statements but lacking the compositional finesse to develop those ideas.

Mindful of the fact that the repertoire presented on this disc avowedly. derives from the performer's 'fantasies,' this listener found it ironic that the one bona fide 'fantasy' on the programme, the seventh of Telemann's Twelve Fantasias for Unaccompanied Violin (1735), should be the least engaging performance. One wonders why van Stralen chose not to ornament the slow movements leaving skeletal lines and internal repetitions unembellished and unvaried - a licence to exercise imagination and fantasy unaccountably spurned.

Notwithstanding the foregoing reservations about repertoire, Esther van Stralen's disc is to be welcomed for not only does it make available many works here recorded for the first time, it also affords us the opportunity of encountering a assured and persuasive artistic personality.
Robert Curry

It is something of a tour de force to record 72 minutes of solo viola music. Van Stralen, principal of the Sydney Symphony, Australia, divides her mostly modern program up by alternating each contemporary piece with a prelude by early romantic composer Heinrich Alois Praeger (1783-1854). This keeps the ears alert. So does the inclusion of multi-viola arrangements of John Cage's mellow Dream and the two pieces by Romanian-born Myriam Marbe (1931-97). This last is in an arrangement by Vladimir Mendelssohn, one of Van Stralen's teachers, and is very pleasant to listen to. From that part of the world we also have Krysztof Penderecki's virtuoso Cadenza. Also from up north comes Benjamin Britten's early Elegy. Australia is well represented by two serial pieces by Carl Vine (b 1954) and a considerable Etude by Gordon Kerry (b 1961). One of Telemann's fantasias for violin has been arranged by Van Stralen, as have three of Astor Piazzolla's six tango studies, originally for flute or violin.

Van Stralen is a musical player with a bit of temperament where called for and a nice nutty tone. Her intonation is sometimes a bit approximate, but her relaxed musicality is a plus. An attractive introduction to an interesting musician.
American Record Guide Nov-Dec 2003

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 TP (1-901)



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