PRIMROSE: Viola Transcriptions

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William Primrose (1904-1982)
Transcriptions for Viola

The great virtuoso violist William Primrose lived out his last three years under the cloud of a terminal illness in Provo, Utah. He had bequeathed his memorabilia and personal library of viola scores to Brigham Young University for the founding of the Primrose International Viola Archive (PIVA), now the largest repository of materials related to the instrument. The year of his demise, the Primrose Memorial Concert and Master Class, was established at Brigham Young. This annual event has attracted numerous professional luminaries of the viola, among them the brilliant Chilean-American, Roberto Diaz, principal violist of the Philadelphia Orchestra and recently appointed director of the Curtis Institute of Music. In 2002 at the Primrose Concert that included a couple of the obligatory Primrose transcriptions, I was struck with Diaz's beauty of tone, and especially his elan and virtuosity, qualities reminiscent of the past master. I suggested to Diaz that he consider making a recording devoted to Primrose transcriptions, something that to our knowledge had not yet been done. He immediately warmed to the idea, a not so minor and daunting challenge. Perhaps Diaz's interest in undertaking this recording was heightened by an oblique pedagogical and genetic relationship with Primrose: Roberto's father and first teacher, Manuel, was once a Primrose student. The recording project received added impetus when, through a circuitous course, the ex-Primrose Antonio and Hieronymus Amati viola, c. 1600, came into the possession of Diaz in 2002. Primrose wrote in his memoir, Walk on the North Side (Brigham Young University Press, 1978), that this instrument was owned by his father, a professional violinist/violist. Primrose used it extensively when he launched his career as a violist, first in the London String Quartet in the early 1930s, and later as a soloist. He used it as his primary performing instrument until about 1950. It was sold, and in 1967 came into a collection and estate in Philadelphia where it largely remained unplayed. Though the owner of the estate had verbally stated that she wished the instrument to come to the Philadelphia Orchestra after her death, the written will instructed that a major American university would be the recipient. Through some friendly negotiation, the Philadelphia Orchestra acquired the viola, and Diaz, as principal violist, bought the instrument from the orchestra. Primrose spoke admiringly of the sound of the Brothers Amati viola. He also mentioned, however, a troublesome wolf tone and, more importantly, the viola's lack of projecting power he sought for his increasingly larger audiences. On receipt of the viola, Diaz determined that the instrument would need to be subject to some restoration. Arthur Toman, a Boston craftsman, on opening the instrument discovered several enigmatic "repairs" the viola had undergone during its lifetime. His work completed, and the viola restored to health, those who heard it were amazed that the instrument now possessed astonishing projection while retaining its distinctive sound. One wonders if Primrose had ever heard his instrument at its full potential? Primrose's first recordings on the viola took place in 1934. He made his debut with it with two Paganini Caprices No. 5 still elicits gasps from unsuspecting listeners, such a brilliant display of the violist's devilish and now legendary virtuosity. The violinist Mischa Elman, on hearing Primrose play a Paganini Caprice, fell silent for a moment then mused, "It must be easier on the viola!" It can be reasonably assumed that until 1947, most, if not all, of Primrose's recordings, including his own transcriptions, were made on the Brothers Amati. The fortunate listener can now hear these transcriptions performed on the same ex-Primrose viola played by Roberto Diaz. According to Primrose "Transcriptions have been grist to the mill of instrumentalists and composers.... Bach is a prime example of the composer who helped himself liberally to the confections of his contemporaries. In my own case I have never had an original thought in my head in the matter of musical composition, while I have flattered myself that I am a likely lad when it comes to picking other men's brains. Concerning my own transcriptions, there were those which were fashioned out of envy, so to speak. I envied the cellist his spinning of song in the Nocturne from the Borodin String Quartet No. 2. I envied Miss Bid?? Say?úo in that wondrous long line of melody with which she astonished us all at the time in the Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5." (Playing the Viola, David Dalton, Oxford, 1988, p. 184) Primrose made transcriptions for his own use to fill some vacancies (charmeurs he called them) in the viola repertoire of his day, and to display his prodigious technique. Unlike string colleagues he greatly admired, Fritz Kreisler and Jascha Heifetz, Primrose did not play the piano well. In making his transcriptions it is not easily determined precisely how much of the piano part Primrose was able to fashion and to what extent he relied on the advice and skill of pianists. David Stimer, his long-time accompanist, was one, as was Clifford Curzon. In his memoir Primrose mentions the assistance he received, and that he had to be "very careful not to write things that are awkward or unplayable". Referring to the Bachianas, "to put eight cello parts into two hands takes some ingenuity". Purists might disdain Primrose's tampering with Beethoven's only composition for the viola (an instrument Beethoven played), the Notturno, Op. 42. Actually, this is a transcription of his string trio, Serenade, Op. 8, believed largely made by another hand, but "approved and corrected by Beethoven". Of this seven-movement work (Diaz chooses three), Primrose adheres closely to the original in the marcia. Elsewhere there are diversions. These might be typified as changes (exchanges) between the original viola and piano parts. Primrose elevates the viola to a coequal, or more prominent, voice with the piano, thus relieving the violist of some purely accompanying passages. By his own admission Primrose strove to elevate the viola from its then current reputation as being the "dull dog" of the string family. Primrose often borrowed from the singer's repertoire. Examples are from Schubert, Villa-Lobos, Tchaikovsky, Brahms, and Wagner. Traume is one of five settings of Mathilde Wesendonck's poems, said to have served the composer as a preliminary study to his later opera, Tristan und Isolde. Primrose toured South America first as a chamber player with the London String Quartet, then as an orchestral musician in the NBC Symphony under Toscanini, and finally as a soloist. He was enamoured of the colour and vitality of Spanish music and its Latin derivatives, pieces here by Aguirre and Valle. One of Primrose's favourite encore pieces was Arthur Benjamin's Jamaican Rumba (not included in this album). The marvellous Sarasateana, a collection of four of the great Spanish violinist's dances, strictly speaking is not a Primrose transcription. These are elaborations on Sarasate's dances by the eminent violinist Efrem Zimbalist, who first arranged these for violin and his own use. Primrose became aware of them while on the faculty of the Curtis Institute of Music in the early 1940s where Zimbalist was the director. Zimbalist transcribed them for Primrose, who commented that "the piano part of this suite is an exemplary model of how to improve in an enchanting and sophisticated manner, the rather jejune accompaniments offered by Sarasate". La Camp
Disc: 1
5 Lieder, Op. 105: No. 1. Wie Melodien zieht es mi
1 String Quartet No. 2 in D major: III. Nocturne (ar
2 Litanei auf das Fest aller Seelen, D. 343 (arr. W.
3 I. Marcia - Allegro
4 II. Adagio
5 III. Allegretto alla polacca
6 Wesendonk Lieder: No. 5. Traume (arr. W. Primrose)
7 Huella, Op. 49 (arr. W. Primrose)
8 Prelude No. 15, "Ao pe da fogueira" (arr. W. Primr
9 Violin Concerto No. 2 in B minor, Op. 7: III. Rond
10 Bachianas brasileiras No. 5: I. Aria: Cantilena (a
11 L'Arlesienne Suite No. 1: III. Adagietto (arr. W.
12 I. Tango: Allegro moderato
13 II. Polo: Allegro moderato
14 III. Malaguena: Amabile
15 IV. Zapateado: Allegro moderato
16 6 Romances, Op. 6: No. 6. None but the Lonely Hear
17 5 Lieder, Op. 105: No. 1. Wie Melodien zieht es mi
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