There’s plenty of fine music for viola but David Aaron Carpenter is a daring musician, so he chose Lionel Tertis's viola arrangement of the Elgar Cello Concerto for his recording debut. This time around he’s playing a work, Berlioz’s Harold in Italy, that was written for viola, but with an intriguing wrinkle. In the first movement, “Harold in the Mountains,” Carpenter plays the viola part that was originally written for Nicolò Paganini. The Paganini connection and the album is fleshed out with Carpenter and the Helsinki Philharmonic conducted by Vladimir Ashkenazy taking on the great fiddler’s Sonata per la Gran Viola e Orchestra, Op. 35.
Some of the great violists and quite a few violinists (playing viola) have recorded Harold in Italy, a musical depiction of episodes from Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. Carpenter is excellent. He is blessed with a full, chocolate-rich tone that is ideally suited to the plaintive quality that sings out in the solo passages. Carpenter gets the key moments right. The appearance of the Harold motto in the first movement is lovely as the viola almost seems to float out of the orchestra and the famous sul ponticello passage at the close of the second movement “Pilgrim’s Procession” is plenty eerie. Carpenter’s performance is filled with plenty of impressive touches, including some spot-on high pianissimo playing. Harold in Italy isn’t a viola concerto and the orchestra is never relegated to a supporting role. The Helsinki orchestra is quite good. The winds in the pifferari section of the “Serenade” are exceptional and the full-tilt orchestral roar of the “Brigand’s Orgies” is very exciting. Even better is the orchestra’s glowing full-bodied string tone.
The Paganini piece that rounds out the album is hardly profound but is undeniably fun. If you think of your favorite bel canto aria loaded with extravagant flourishes and arranged for viola and orchestra you’ll know what’s on hand. The piece is at its best in the closing movement, a set of variations that tosses plenty of technical challenges Carpenter’s way. The real fun is hearing this enormously talented young violist handle them.