Cinderella No More is the title of the autobiography of Lionel Tertis, the great British violist who first rescued the viola from its place as the oom-pah-pah of waltzes. His successor in this effort was William Primrose, one of the giants among violists with a solo career. His ca. 1600 Amati viola was used in Sunday afternoon’s concert at the Gardner Museum by internationally acclaimed violist Roberto Diaz. The viola is no second-class citizen in the hands of Diaz, who performed three sonatas by Brahms to a sold-out crowd.
A ten-year stint as principal violist with the Philadelphia Orchestra caps an orchestral career which included principal of the National Symphony under Rostropovich, several years with the Minnesota Orchestra under Neville Marriner, and a spell with the BSO under Seiji Ozawa. In addition to his performing career, Diaz is president of the Curtis Institute of Music.
These credentials are only the beginning. Diaz brings an innate musical intelligence to his performance, allowing the music to come to life. There is no question that the two sonatas Brahms wrote originally for clarinet (or viola), op. 120 in f minor and that in Eb major, are technically challenging works, each potentially a cornerstone of a solo recital. They plumb the range of the instrument, both sonically and emotionally. To these challenging works, Diaz added the Sonata in D, op. 78 originally for violin, transcribed by Csaba Erdely. (There is a longstanding tradition among violists to “borrow” works originally written for other instruments, in order to expand the repertoire.) This latter work, played second on the program, made much greater use of the upper register and required more double stops. Its overall nature is mournful, which makes it suited to the alto register of the viola; but the technical challenges were considerable, all of which Diaz dispatched with ease.
It is a rare performer whose command of an instrument is so complete that no matter what the difficulty, the audience is not bogged down by the sound of struggle. Diaz played with a huge palette, coloring the sound with varying vibrato, subtle dynamic shifts, and dramatic contrasts of mood as required by the composer. Brahms’s slow movements are among the most tender and gentle, often followed in the space of a measure with a pleading musical statement that reaches from the bottom of the instrument’s range to some frantically high note at the top. The fast movements, particularly the second movement of the Eb and the finale of the f minor, were both played at a take-no-prisoners tempo, breathtaking without ever being out of control. Diaz’s flawless intonation, impeccable high notes, and emotional range gave the impression that this was exactly the way Brahms intended this music to be played.
Diaz was ably accompanied by Kwan Yi, whose ego-free performance perfectly complemented the viola. His playing had strength but never overpowered the middle register of the instrument, with a supple clarity that never allowed Brahms’s complex rhythmic patterns to become muddy. In several passages when the viola and piano had unison descending scales, there was such unity of musical thought that the music sounded like a string of pearls. Yi is an artist in his own right.
After the standing ovation, Diaz and Yi treated the audience to a palate clearing morsel of Debussy, Beau Soir, another transcription that has found itself at home in the violist’s repertoire.