Beginning with a disclaimer - I received this disc gratis from the soloist in consideration for a review. I normally would have passed on a disc of solo viola music, as it is far outside my realm of expertise. However, I recognized his name and wanted to give it a try. And opening the booklet, I recognized his face from the moment I saw it - this is Masumi Rostad, the violist from the Pacifica Quartet, whose videos I've seen and thoroughly enjoyed many, many times on YouTube. The Pacifica is one of my very favorite string quartets and I own several of their CDs. In fact, in reviewing their set of Mendelssohn Quartets on this blog, I concluded "this is the set to have". So this disc from their former violist intrigued me further.
Masumi Rostad graduated from Juilliard, performed with the Pacifica Quartet until 2017, and is now Professor of Viola at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester.
I am no expert by any means on solo viola music. And I admit right upfront I've never heard any of this music before. And, in all honesty, I can't say that I appreciated all of it. But I certainly admired it. And truly enjoyed a lot of it. This disc is comprised entirely of music for solo viola (except for the final track, Etude I by Mico Muhly, which is accompanied by an electronic track). No quartet. No duets. No piano. Just viola. So, for me, I couldn't take it all in one sitting. But broken up into smaller bits, over several days, I found it interesting and musically rewarding. The playing of Mr. Rostad is beyond reproach. He plays a 1619 Amati and his tone is gorgeous - wooden and rich, but not dark. Most notable, though, is his assured technique and secure intonation. For some reason, I often hear suspect intonation with some violists. But not so here. It is the most professionally executed viola playing I have ever heard.
As to the music, it ranges from Bach to Caroline Shaw, with everything in between, including Vieuxtemps, Stravinsky, Reger, and Elliott Carter and others. I loved two works over and above all the rest, and was pleasantly surprised to discover one of them was by Caroline Shaw, in manus tuas. I have recently discovered this composer's music (via the Attacca Quartet and the vocal group, Roomful of Teeth) and recognized its creative hallmarks here. It is certainly the most unusual and interesting piece on the disc, with its "scratch tones" effects, wide dynamic range and almost imperceptible vocalizations here and there by the player. It is immaculately played. Incredible actually. Another track of great interest is the one I expected to like the least, that final track mentioned above with an electronic accompaniment. It is actually very pleasant - it sounds rather like an electronic organ or keyboard; it is musical (not noise) and tonal (sort of). Hearing it, I actually longed for another piece or two with accompaniment interspersed throughout the program.
This album was recorded in 2020 at the Eastman School. I can't find a record label on this CD, but Amazon lists it as CD Baby. It is a high quality production, complete with glossy pictures and a comprehensive booklet written by the soloist. The recorded sound is bold and mastered at a high volume, making tremendous impact. I had to cut back the volume several notches to find a natural level. Once obtained, it is realistic within a natural acoustic.
In summary, this was a difficult disc to review, coming to it from inexperience. I can only relate what I heard and what I liked. But what was easy is to praise the flawless playing of Masumi Rostad. I hope we will see more recordings from him in the future.