The viola is not usually thought of as a solo instrument, and violists -- save for such moonlighting violinists as Pinchas Zukerman -- do not usually come to mind as solo stars.
But last night in Merrick Hall on the campus of Goucher College, Paul Neubauer gave a flabbergastingly fine account of his instrument and his own talent upon it. If there has been a better violist than this young man since William Primrose was in his prime more than a half-century ago, this listener does not know of him or her.
Neubauer, whose recital was part of his Janet and Avery Fisher Music Residency at the college, began his recital with Schubert's "Arpeggione" Sonata. This piece, which was written for the arpeggione -- a guitar-like instrument that no longer exists -- is usually heard on the cello and, because of its low registers, lies more comfortably within the range of that instrument. But Neubauer made the music sound effortlessly easy, and his interpretation kept the ear in anticipation from moment to moment.
He was fortunate in his collaborator -- the excellent Margo Garrett -- who has been partnering Neubauer since 1982. This pianist knew how to let the violist shine without letting herself fade into the woodwork. In the works on the program -- several morceaux by Fritz Kreisler excepted -- the piano was just as important as the viola. Garrett's playing, while never calling attention to itself, was unfailingly satisfying.
The Schubert was followed by Arthur Benjamin's Sonata for Viola and Piano (1942), which was written for Primrose himself and which the great violist himself recorded. Neubauer played the work dazzlingly -- with pinpoint accuracy, rhythmic fluency and a torrent of sound that never exceeded the legitimate boundaries of his instrument.
After intermission came the inevitable Brahms sonata (opus 120, No. 1). This piece, which exists in alternate versions for either viola or clarinet, usually sounds better -- to these ears -- on the wind instrument. But Neubauer and Garrett played the piece with such style and elegance that one did not miss the more personal sound of the clarinet. If Neubauer's playing was somewhat cool, the elegance of its aristocratic restraint compensated for any absence of ardor.
The playing in the three Kreisler pieces that concluded the recital -- "La Precieuse," "Tambourin" and "Tempo di Minuetto" -- was as sweet to the ear as a fine Sacher torte is to the palate.
This was as fine a recital as anyone can expect to hear in Baltimore this season.