There are many ways to declare your love to an instrument: With enthusiasm, like 1st principal violist Máté Szűcs: “You are the best instrument for me to express my complex and extreme feelings.” With love, like Ulrich Knörzer: “The viola sounds both sweet and sharp, it can sound warm and then bright and penetrating again.” Or passionately, like Matthew Hunter: “I close my eyes, let my fingers slowly caress your ebony back – your voice, a chocolatey smooth purr, whispers in my ear: Youʼre mine, we are one, you are my one and only, my ... viola.” Or almost with a curse, like Martin Stegner: “Youʼre a crappy box, but I still love you!”

Focus of attention

The fact that violists and especially the violists of the Berliner Philharmoniker have an intimate relationship with their instrument appears only natural. However, the viola is generally always somewhat overshadowed by other string instruments, the high violins and the deep cellos and double basses. Not so this year, because the Berlin State Music Council, in partnership with the Schleswig-Holstein State Music Council, have named the viola instrument of the year 2014. This means that this year, the viola becomes more the focus of attention in the world of music. Although – as the Philharmonikerʼs violists point out – every year is a viola year, they have been involved in various events for their instrument. Ulrich Knörzer, for example, took part in the Hindemith Festival at the University of the Arts in February 2014 where he performed Des Todes Tod by Paul Hindemith who was himself a passionate viola player. Also, Martin Stegner, who treated himself to a new viola this year, has been involved in many viola-related events: “I have played in many concerts with unusual instrumental groupings, styles and arrangements. In this way I have been able to present the many lesser-known sides of the viola.”

A cosmopolitan instrument

Even Hector Berlioz in his Grand Traité d’instrumentation et d’orchestration moderne wrote that of all the instruments in the orchestra, it was the viola whose excellent properties had been misunderstood the longest. Nimble like a violin, but with its deeper sound, it possesses a mournfully passionate sound. The Philharmonikerʼs violists are well aware of their instrumentʼs strengths and weaknesses: They love the violaʼs similarity to the human voice, but realise that its sound can so easily be covered up in the middle range. “The viola,” says Ulrich Knörzer, “mediates between the poles: Violins above and basses below. That is both its strength and its weakness. As the middle voice, it cements the others together, and because it has its own timbre, composers provide it with a wealth of beautiful moments. On the other hand, it cannot stand out as the melody instrument like the violin and it lacks the volume for the bass. But violists ideally always have the ear of their colleagues.” “Our role is very cosmopolitan,” adds Matthew Hunter, “Sometimes we are the secondary voice, sometimes like the rhythm of a guitar or we form the harmony, and then of course we also play the melody.” In this way, the viola gives the orchestral sound spatial depth, a third dimension. Máté Szűcs emphasizes that the viola is also an ideal instrument for chamber music: “With the viola, you can dive deep into the music and bring out its vast array of timbres.”