Most tracks on these two CDs have been previously released and were recorded between 1998 and 2008 with Larry Bentley at Cellar Dweller Productions based in North Plainfield, New Jersey. They come from the following out-of-print albums: Bach's Sonatas and Partitas (the original 1998 recording), Two Viola Recitals, Paganini's 24 Caprices, as well as Recital On the Road, the last of which is still in print but unavailable digitally. All material was originally released on the Eroica Classical Recordings and SSRS labels, and the recordings of Paganini Caprices 3 and 24 are featured uncut on the soundtrack of the controversial Bolivian film Sirwinaquy.
I've been recording with Larry Bentley at Cellar Dweller Productions for twenty years. While my focus more recently has been recording my own music, that of other modern composers, and viola duos with my wife, Tanya Solomon, when we started out I was playing what many young string players eventually work on--- the fundamentals of the repertoire at the highest technical levels: Bach's Sonatas, Partitas, and Suites, Paganini's Twenty-four Caprices, and Ernst's Six Polyphonic Studies.
My 1998 2-CD set of the Bach Sonatas and Partitas was the first complete recording ever made on viola, and when I recorded the 24 Paganini Caprices, the only other viola recording available was made over forty years earlier (in 1965) by Emanuel Vardi, with whom I studied as a teenager. Though long out of print, I had the original collection of records on the Epic label, and though it was amazing playing of a set of etudes with appeal mostly to other violists--- admittedly a fairly small audience base--- I was still surprised no one was continuing with what Mr. Vardi had started.
Both my first Bach and Paganini recordings survived about a decade before going out of print. In the case of the Bach Sonatas and Partitas, I made a second recording of them, which is available digitally and called Bach Preludes Dances, and Fugues. I'm not aware of any other viola recordings of the Allemande from Sixth Cello Suite without octave changes (that compress the range of the original material), nor was I aware of any recordings of Ernst's Last Rose on viola back when I was working on and performing it, though today there do exist a few arrangements. Unlike some viola versions of Paganini's Caprices, which are really quite simplified arrangements, I stuck with the original material; I didn't simplify it or alter it in any way that would not be acceptable on the spectrum of what exists in the violin world. As an example, in the first Caprice on this album (no. 3), some violists alter the double-octave trils in high positions to be single-octave trills only in lower positions. While much more comfortable and certainly easier to execute cleanly, this robs the music of its technical raison d'etre as a study, and it also removes some of the glissandi, which alters the material musically as well. Adapting music to be more violistic (so it lies more easily on the instrument) is a fine and logical thing to do in many cases when the focus is not primarily a technical one. The technical repertoire (etudes etc.) is to my mind in a separate category, and it is up to the violist to best to adapt him- or herself to the technical hurdles, not the other way around. I kept the material as it is presented in the current, most standard printed editions for viola, and how violists have studied them for decades at conservatories.
These two albums of rereleased material attempt to give an overview of what we were doing during our first decade at Cellar Dweller, with the aim that this material be made available in the (fairly) new digital format. Not every Paganini or Ernst study is going to be of interest to a general audience, as some focus so much on deliberately-awkward technical work that the musical value can be minimal. For these rereleases however, I have chosen some of my favorites on musical grounds (though they're still quite a technical challenge, too!) Some will lean more toward purely beautiful, at times even haunting music, and others aim more to put on a technical show, but whichever direction they lean toward, in my opinion they're all enjoyable purely as music by people who don't need to understand anything about difficulty of the techniques involved.
For purely musical reasons, I made some alterations to the two final sets of variations: In Paganini's 24th Caprice, I added artificial harmonics to one variation for extra color, and in the Ernst, I left out two variations and made a cut the finale. Because of this, I marked the Ernst as Ernst-Slapin as it has in this way been arranged, though in the Ernst variations I chose to record, there are no simplifications, and actually I added a virtuoso flourish in tenths at the end of one of them. I performed the full Ernst variations several times in the 1990's, and while they're all worthwhile as technical studies, I felt as a concert music it went on a little too long. Outside of these two instances, all material is unarranged and generally as it is performed on the violin, flute and cello (except for the transposition of key to keep the open strings in the same place.)
All the composers on this disc also played viola as well as violin, and it is quite likely they used the material here as etudes in their practicing of both the violin and the viola. Ernst spent a decade touring as the viola soloist in Berlioz' famous viola solo Harold In Italy, which was coincidentally written for Paganini, who himself wrote a sonata for the viola. Bach gave up his post as concertmaster (violin) with the Weimar Court Band in 1717 in order to play viola with the group instead, and his final Brandenburg concerto (no. 6) was written for two solo violas and string orchestra.
So, from Bach to Bach with a lot of difficult material in between, it was fun for me to hear some of these recordings again after almost two decades. I hope you enjoy them as well.
-Scott Slapin 2017