Carl Stamic was probably the very first virtuoso violist. He lived from 1745 until 1801. The viola is sometimes described as the alto voice of the violin family - if you think of violins as sopranos, violas as altos, cellos as tenors, and the contrabass as bass.
Like a good alto voice, it has a rich, dark, mellow sound. But it's a little complicated with violas. Technically, to fulfill their 'alto' role, they should be halfway in size between a violin and a cello, but that makes for an unplayable instrument - too large to hold on your shoulder like a violin, and too small to support between the legs like a cello. There have been - and there continue to be - numerous experiments and tinkerings with the instrument, but generally the viola is about 2 inches longer than a violin, and of course it is played held on the shoulder like the violin. But that slight difference in length is enough to make it quite a challenge to play - many people would say it is harder to play well than violin.
The viola has the misfortune of being the butt of jokes among musicians: Why did the chicken cross the road? To get away from a viola recital... Yes, there are a million awful jokes on about that level. And it's completely unfair, because the viola is a wonderful instrument. A new Supraphon CD, featuring some of Carl Stamic's compositions for the viola, played by Jan Peruska with the Prague Chamber Philharmonic, offers ample proof of this.
Carl Stamic should not be confused with the more famous Stamic, after whom the present-day Stamic String Quartet is named. In fact the influential Jan Vaclav Stamic was his father. Though born in Havlickuv Brod in what is now the Czech Republic, Jan Vaclav is probably better known under the German form of his name, Johann Stamitz, and is chiefly celebrated as the founder of the so-called 'Mannheim School', a style of orchestral playing that was very innovative at the time.
Stamic senior took over the court orchestra in Mannheim in 1741, and evidently was a charismatic leader, for he quickly built it into perhaps the finest orchestra of the day - the British writer Dr. Burney called it 'an army of generals, equally competent to plan a campaign and to fight it'. You can hear the music of both father and son on the new Supraphon CD, called J.V. Stamic and Sons. (There was another composer son, Anton).
CDs reviewed in this programme are provided by Siroky Dvur
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