reviewed by Tom-Tom
Violas and to a lesser extent cellos tend to be the red-headed step-children of any early string ensemble. As mentioned before, most Baroque and even Classical composing styles gave everything in terms of melody to the first and sometimes second violins with the occasional scrap allowed to the cello. Barely anything other harmony is bestowed to the poor violas. In some of later composer Rossini’s early string sonatas, he leaves them out completely. Violists read a different clef from the rest of the ensemble really making them the bastard child apparent of the string family. This is shame as the viola is really a beautiful instrument more mellow than the violin if not as deeply resonant as the cello. It’s not until some of Mozart’s later symphonies and chamber music that the viola even has much of a role other than supporting harmonically the rest of the group as the thankless maid or butler.
However, in 1721, Johann Sebastian Bach gave, for three movements only the prominent role of ensemble leader to the violas eschewing violins completely. Included is cellos and the viola da gamba (foot viola, basically a multi-stringed cello), with cello and harpsichord.
The first movement begins with a robust rhythmic mimicking of the two lead violas which is less fugal as it is canonic. It sounds like a supped up version of the Third Concerto which was also all strings. Despite the smaller size of this ensemble, it sounds thicker due to the close interweaving of melody by the two violins. It is very busy and being lower on the melodic scale, it sounds richer and woodier each instrument digging deep leaving almost no measure open where there are fewer than two instruments sawing away at moving passages. There is such close knit conversation between the instruments as each finish their musical sentences for each other a way a close yet noisy family might after having lived under the tyranny of an unsightly ruler for a long time (in this case the violins).
The second movement is the first and last of the Six Brandenburg Concerti which isn’t in a minor key. No viola da gamba here. Just two violi having a reflective conversation with the continuo as peanut gallery. This piece is on par with any one of Bach’s second movements for two instruments including the “Bach Double” and Concerto for Violin and Oboe.
The third movement is the real jewel of the piece, a gigue, a romp on the same level as the last movement of the Third Concerto but livelier with more of the “whack-a-mole” bouncing around of the melody. The absence of the violins isn’t a problem as the close knit counterpoint of the violas followed not far behind by the violi da gamba is thick and wonderful. There’s a series of sixteenth note canonic melodies that up the ante on this, the final movement of the final Brandenburg Concerto, the Mecca of Violists everywhere.