Marina Thibeault, viola; Janelle Fung, piano
ATMA 2017. ACD2 2759, 66 min 58 s.
With the first recording of her career, violist Marina Thibeault strikes a balance between spirited and sentimental, tradition and innovation, accessibility and abstraction, leaving us with a clear and compelling understanding of the breadth of both the repertoire and the instrument itself. Thibeault has a sensitive but firm touch, painting long lines in which sounds become ideas. The disc opens with the Valse sentimentale from Tchaikovsky’s Six Pieces Op. 51. The transcription of the piece, originally written for piano, highlights the thematic binaries – the dark timbre of the viola combined with Thibeault and Fung’s flexible phrasing gives an aching sense of suspended time. Stepping back several decades with Mikhail Glinka’s Sonata in D minor for viola and piano, the duo finds sophistication in a work written when the composer was only in his early twenties. The movement, Allegro moderato – which posthumously became isolated from the incomplete sonata to become a standalone piece – is an exercise in a traditional Classical form, but also exhibits an idiomatic sensibility to the viola unique to Glinka.
The centre selections of the recording are for solo viola: Hindemith’s Sonata Op. 31 no. 4, Ana Sokolović’s Prelude, Jean Lesage’s Toquade, and Milan Kymlička’s Rubato e Agitato. Aside from the Hindemith, which is required learning for any violist worth their salt, the pieces either are composed for Thibeault herself, or, as in the case of the Sokolović, gained new life in her hands. Throughout the Hindemith, Thibeault maintains an exceptional diction and clarity of tone, exhibiting maturity well beyond her years. Sokolović’s gypsy-influenced Prelude captures the more meditative side of the instrument, an aspect that Thibeault manipulates with ease. Indeed, as the composer writes in the notes to the piece, “My viola writing has not been the same since I met her.”
Heavily influenced by the Baroque period, the title track, Toquade, is the perfect demonstration of Thibeault’s dexterity and facility up and down the fingerboard. This feat is made all the more impressive with the knowledge that her 1854 Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume viola is on the larger side. Dedicated to Thibeault and premiered shortly before the composer’s death in 2008, Kymlička’s short work packs a fairly emotional punch, the Rubato a dark reverie centred around the open strings of the viola while the Agitato makes use of the inherent tension in semitone relationships. The CD is capped off with Bohuslav Martinů’s Sonata No. 1 for Viola and Piano, in which Thibeault demonstrates her characteristic lyricism and colourful sound palette, drawing on a broad vibrato. For this work, I wish Fung were more present in the sound mix – if only to better appreciate their outstanding collaborative relationship. At first glance, the mix of periods and composers on this recording may feel eclectic, but the album coheres around Thibeault’s sensitivity to each composer’s vision without sacrificing her personal voice.