Like many performers Roberto Díaz was born to professional musicians, his mother a pianist and his father also a viola player who taught at the Chilean Conservatory. Díaz began lessons aged six in Chile before the family moved to Atlanta, Georgia when he was fourteen (his father joining the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra). At this time he switched from violin to viola, studying at the New England Conservatory and then the Curtis Institute of Music.
Díaz’s professional career began with the post of principal viola in the Minnesota Orchestra and continued with a stint of five years with the Boston Symphony and teaching at the Conservatory, before working for four years under Rostropovich with the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington DC. He has spent time (also as principal viola) with the Philadelphia Orchestra, having taught at Rice University in Houston, Texas, the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, and the Curtis Institute in 2001, becoming its president five years later.
This distinguished teaching and orchestral performing career has included some notable international solo and chamber performances, including with the Emerson Quartet and his own Díaz Trio. Such prestige is reflected in his recordings, which show a complete technical mastery of the instrument and a fantastic breadth and warmth of tone. Díaz’s playing is very typically in the modern mould but is distinguished mainly by its clarity and sonority in low registers, and agility in high tessitura, with none of the strained tones that so often affect even the best players.
Díaz’s 2004 recording of William Primrose transcriptions was nominated for a Grammy® award. His varied and virile performances on this disc include Beethoven’s Op. 42 Notturno which begins in robust style and culminates in a lithe and suitably capricious finale, and an equally committed transcription of the finale of Paganini’s ‘La campanella’ Concerto, although some of the faster passagework is (perhaps unsurprisingly) a little ponderous. Díaz has recently (2008) recorded both of the Brahms Op. 120 Sonatas in distinguished but stylistically conventional readings, as well as a transcription of the Violin Sonata, Op. 78—although the latter is, at a fifth below the normal violin pitch, perhaps not a particularly helpful addition to the repertory.
Leshnoff’s Double Concerto (with violinist Charles Wetherbee, 2008) is a successful recording, with a tonal sound-world suggestive of Samuel Barber in the first movement, Bartók in the ethereal third and Shostakovich in the driven second and final movements; this is beautifully balanced with a rich and accurate sound from both players, matched by an intense energy. In my view, however, Díaz really shines in Vieuxtemps’s music (recorded 2002), the large-toned proportions of which suit him eminently. The Op. 36 Sonata is compelling listening, and the Élégie is very powerful indeed, both in composition and in Díaz’s depth and breadth of sound.
In many ways, Díaz’s playing articulates the ideals of modern viola performing practice very effectively. There is a sense, in all of this music, of an intelligent and malleable artistic personality, adaptable to circumstances and repertoire.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Milsom (A–Z of String Players, Naxos 8.558081-84)