This is how it happened...

The structure of the traditional string quartet is quite regimented. It is generally the first violinist who shoulders the burden of artistic responsibility. Nor is it a democracy. The parts are rarely equal (indeed, the second violin and viola parts are often extremely dull) and the scope for equal dialogue between parts must be dictated by the limited common range and timbre of the instruments involved. So because of this there are numerous issues that can become intensely frustrating, both artistically and emotionally.

Johann Strauss and the Viola

However, not so in a viola quartet. It didn't happen consciously, that while arranging and compiling repertoire for four violas it came about almost by accident that the interactive dynamic between parts was potentially very exciting in a way that a conventional quartet could never be. Obviously, the range is more limited than a string quartet, but the scope for melodic dialogue and complex counterpoint was most beguiling. There is no first viola as such except in so far as the parts have to be numbered. Also, when we perform, we stand up. It may not seem a great thing but we feel it makes for greater freedom, more soloistic, and a less cluttered stage. Neither are we doomed to always play the same part - it is fun to swap, or (as we frequently do) shuffle and deal the parts out like cards, face down.


Four violas (or viole, if you want to sound posh) work in a way that four violins or cellos (ditto celli) cannot. Violins go no lower than G which is very limiting, and a cello foursome, although it has the range, encounters difficulties with facility.

Stringed instrument range

However violas, most importantly, have an astonishing  breadth of expressive qualities (and a Clef which no one else can read) that has rarely been fully exploited by composers - although Beethoven (himself a violist) perhaps led the way when in his late works he occasionally had the cello soaring (or, on occasions, sawing) in its upper register while the viola plays in its dark lower range, thus creating a wonderful new timbre.

  • A conventional string quartet is a marriage. Each player has to know his or her role, and the instruments must compliment each other.
  • A viola quartet is a brotherhood; we are siblings, we bond like a family. It is very subtle.

 

By the way, the album title was Peter's fault. During one recording session he was having a little practice and remarked to Ania: 'This is easier than it sounds', and it stuck!

 

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