Walter Trampler’s career began when he was still a teenager and saw him, having been the violist with the Strub Quartet, work with numerous other iconic ensembles such as the Juilliard, New Music, Yale and Budapest Quartets and the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Centre, as well as with great conductors like Strauss and Koussevitzky. These collaborations produced a number of celebrated recordings—the Strub’s Schubert ‘Trout’ Quintet with Elly Ney is still considered seminal. An overt Jewish sympathiser and anti-fascist, Trampler emigrated to America at the outbreak of World War II and served with the US army before continuing his career as soloist, chamber musician and teacher for several decades. His New Music Quartet, founded in 1947, championed contemporary compositions, an area of repertoire of great interest to Trampler; amongst the many works written for him or given their first performance by him are Henze’s Viola Concerto, works by Bainbridge, Richard Wilson’s Viola Sonata and pieces by Berio.
He favoured a large instrument and owned one that had been ‘downsized’ from an old viola da gamba to make a particularly big viola which he handled with consummate ease, as his recordings tell. Indeed, Trampler’s performances show him to be not only technically one of the most successful viola players on record, but also one of the most musically versatile musicians of his generation, able to bring meaning and intensity to more esoteric modern compositions as well as to more established repertoire such as Reger or Hindemith. His repertoire and discography hint perhaps at an outlook both serious-minded and broadened by his bi-cultural (German-American) experience of life.
Trampler’s recording of the Reger Suite No. 1, with its dense textures and consciously neo- Bachian musical language, conveys an intense tone and great accuracy. The stridency and lack of ultimate precision that mars much viola-playing in high registers is conspicuously absent with Trampler, and his noble, rounded tone testifies to the advantages of the larger instrument in this respect: there is a resonant quality that aids clarity in this music, and a tidy articulation (as in the last movement) which shows off Trampler’s agile left hand. These traits are equally evident in the two Hindemith examples. The opening of the Solo Sonata is rather more disjunct than in Hindemith’s own reading of the work, but benefits from a clearer tone and separation of phrases and gestures. The fourth movement is very exciting and committed, Trampler’s technique remaining rock-solid, whilst the finale well displays the tragic character that suits the viola so well. There is also some very delicate playing here with a well-modulated vibrato that, whilst continuous, never obscures or clouds the melodic line. The Hindemith Sonata in F with Turini is, arguably, the finest recording of this selection with quite astonishing intensity in the second movement, a white-hot emotional approach unifying the players after a ravishingly beautiful opening in which Hindemith’s delicate (almost French-style) textures are played with the utmost care. Here, as elsewhere, Trampler’s tone is recognisably modern—few portamenti, careful dynamic control and a continuous if discreet vibrato—and it works to stunning effect.
His intellectual grasp of newer, more complex repertoire can be found in Wilson’s Viola Sonata (one of Trampler’s last recordings, from 1992). Although the effects of advancing years are inevitably apparent (blemishes of intonation and a few insecure shifts), the musical delivery is cerebrally satisfying. More colourful is Bainbridge’s Viola Concerto with the London Sinfonietta (1981), which Trampler commissioned. Right from the start we hear his understanding of this complex work; from the thin thread of sound at the beginning, opening up into a nightmarish atonal landscape, he plays with utter musical commitment and intrigues the listener with a vast palette of tonal effects. His Berio performances, here represented by Sequenza VI for solo viola (written for him; recorded in 1971), evidence a clean, crisp sound, delivered with virtuosity and iron-fisted confidence. Trampler manages the changes of tessitura and extended tremolando bowing textures with great ease (he once joked that he had to practise Berio’s music on a vibrating machine weeks before a performance!). It is interesting to note that he plays the more sustained tones with very sparing vibrato, avoiding characteristics thought of as Romantic. His fluency in this musical monologue demonstrates once again his highly-developed skills as a performer of twentieth-century music. With a career spanning almost two-thirds of that century and a musical instinct able to digest music of virtually any genre, he is without doubt one of the most important string players of his age.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Milsom (A–Z of String Players, Naxos 8.558081-84)