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Ásdís Valdimarsdottir speaks about ‘Telemann: 12 Fantasies for Solo Viola’

I recently sat down with violist Ásdís Valdimarsdottir to discuss her most recent recording ‘Telemann: 12 Fantasies for Solo Viola’. Ásdís shares her experience of the recording as well as what inspired her to make it – personally transcribing the recently rediscovered 12 Fantasies for viola da gamba to viola.

Had you heard of DSD before making this album?

To be honest, I hadn’t heard of it until HR Recordings mentioned it to me. They are known for recording in high resolution, capturing every detail, down to the sound of the fingers on the strings.

Was that a new experience for you?

Yes it was! It felt more exposed than when the microphones are farther away- but also somehow really true. It was very nice to have a small intimate team also- my husband was my Tonmeister- as in the one looking after that everything was covered- he and Augustin, the sound engineer and owner of HR records, were inside the church with me while I was playing. Originally I was planning to record this more slowly- but Agustin inspired me to go for recording all 12 now – it required a big push to go for it in quite a short time but I’m glad we went ahead and finished them!

So, the project began with transcribing the 12 Fantasies for solo viola. What inspired you to undertake this?

The viola has a unique history, especially during the early Baroque and classical periods. Initially, it was primarily a harmony filler instrument due to its size limitations. Unlike the violin and cello, the viola’s acoustical characteristics differ, giving it a distinct mellower tone but also posing challenges in tone production and clarity. In the world of solo viola music there is limited original repertoire from the 18th century, prompting me to explore transcriptions and adaptations. Discovering Telemann’s Gamba Fantasies, originally composed for the viola da gamba, intrigued me. The viola’s journey from a supporting role to a solo instrument fascinated me, leading me to transcribe and adapt these pieces for the viola.

 What was the process like for transcribing these pieces?

Transcribing these pieces was a labor of love. I stumbled upon existing transcriptions but found discrepancies and compromises that deviated from the composer’s original intent. Utilising modern technology like Staffpad, I meticulously transcribed the pieces, striving to remain faithful to Telemann’s compositions. Each fantasy presented its own challenges, especially in adapting chords and multiple string techniques characteristic of the viola da gamba. My aim was to preserve the integrity of Telemann’s music while making it accessible to contemporary viola players.

Your efforts have resulted in a significant contribution to viola repertoire. How does it feel to have your name associated with these transcriptions?

It’s a humbling experience. Throughout my career, I’ve interpreted and performed numerous works, but seeing my name associated with these transcriptions feels special. It’s a testament to the collaborative efforts with scholars, editors, and publishers who recognized the value of these adaptations. As a viola player, expanding the repertoire and exploring lesser-known works is immensely gratifying.

Moving to the recording process, what was your experience like working with Agustin and HR Recordings?

It was a very comfortable collaboration. Agustin’s husband is a very old friend of mine and he mentioned that HR Recordings was looking for new projects. He asked if I had anything I would like to record, and I did! The recording process was intensive yet rewarding. We chose a picturesque location, a quaint church north of Madrid with amazing acoustics and ambiance. Recording all twelve pieces in three days was a challenge, requiring meticulous preparation and focus. Despite the time constraints and physical strain, the experience was enriching, allowing me to immerse myself fully in Telemann’s music.

Did you encounter any unique challenges during the recording process?

Recording solo pieces was a departure from my usual ensemble or orchestral work, requiring a different mindset and approach. The intimate setting and single microphone setup made me feel exposed, intensifying the focus on every nuance and detail. Playing in a cold environment presented physical challenges, I had to wear extra layers and use a little heater next to me to stay warm. However, the solitude allowed for introspection and deep connection with the music, resulting in a profoundly personal recording experience.

Did you find it easier or more challenging to connect with the music in a solo recording setting?

I think it was a bit of both. With someone else, you can feed off each other’s energy, although there’s also the potential for conflict. Going solo is definitely an inward journey, allowing you to really immerse yourself in the music. It’s about bringing the composer’s intentions to life and understanding the story within each piece. For me, it’s crucial not to impose too much of my own interpretation but rather to honor the composer’s vision.

So, you mentioned initiating the recording process. Did that involve a lot of preparation, perhaps with Agustin, or was it more spontaneous? Did you just fly in, assess the space, and dive into it? You mentioned earlier that what you initially thought would take around six days was condensed to just three by Agustin.

Yeah, essentially, I would have preferred more time. It was a bit of a mixed feeling because, of course, it’s great to get things done efficiently. However, having more time would have been preferable. I had been living with the pieces for about three years, so they were deeply ingrained in me, but I needed to translate that understanding into my playing, which required a lot of extra effort, especially considering my other commitments like teaching. Yeah, and I had a minor injury just before the recording.

Oh, really? In your hand?

Yeah, just one finger. I overdid it with practice. Thankfully I discovered something called Body Mapping – without which I’m not sure I would have been able to record solo music for hours like that! With the knowledge of how to use your body in an optimal way one can play with much more freedom and much less danger of injury and pain! Even if I managed to hurt one my fingers on the left hand from over working it – it would have been much worse had I not had the understanding of why it occurred and how to handle it…

Were there pieces that required more time than others, or was it a balanced distribution?

Well, in terms of time, they were done sequentially. However, towards the end, I made a decision. Number eleven—I postponed that to the following morning when I was feeling fresh. So instead, I tackled number twelve in the evening when I was a bit fatigued. But indeed, each piece presents its own set of challenges. What’s fascinating about these twelve fantasies is their individuality. None of them feel repetitive. Starting from C minor in the first one and ending in the relative major, it’s quite significant in terms of harmony if you’re interested in that aspect.

Besides being dedicated to his amateur gamma player friend, is there a backstory to these pieces?

I’m not sure. He must have shared copies with someone. Others must have played them. Considering he composed such an extensive body of work—3000 pieces in total—calculating how many were out there is quite a task. This particular fantasy, however, disappeared for about 300 years until it resurfaced in 2015.

Incredible. It was found in someone’s private collection, correct?

Yeah, there was some documentation that led to its discovery in a private collection. Remarkable, isn’t it? It makes you wonder how much more lies undiscovered. Anyway, these fantasies he wrote for solo instruments are truly unique. There are twelve for flute, twelve for violin, and thirty-six for keyboards. They’ve gained popularity over time, with numerous recordings and editions available. Since I began my work, there have been at least three new editions. 

One of my students, about two years ago, came to a lesson with a new  edition of the same twelve fantasies for viola—edited by my colleague Brian Schiele in Scotland who plays in the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. It was funny because I was on my way the following week, to guest lead the viola group in the SCO. He had a quicker publishing process compared to mine. And he made different choices so we had a nice nerdy conversation about “why did you do this down the octave there?” And  “how did you solve this problem?”

And did you stand by your decisions after you spoke with him about it?

Oh yes, I did and I still do. I’m very happy with how this project turned out. 

Well we are too, Asdis. It’s great to add another solo viola work to the collection. Thanks for joining us.

Written by

David Hopkins

David is NativeDSD’s Product and Communication Manager. He grew up writing songs, playing guitar and drums. Working with musicians in studio to produce records as a recording engineer and producer, he produced music for numerous commercials for Pulse Content, and organised numerous music events and concerts.


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