Viola concertos

It’s been on my conscience for a while now that in a previous blog I was ungracious enough to use a clutch of jokes at the expense of viola players to spice up the narrative. Although such witticisms will no doubt remain in the profession’s repartee for some time yet, I thought I would try and make amends in our latest edition, spurred by the recent re-release of a 2006 recording of British viola concertos and other works for viola and orchestra (8.573876). Both the music and the performances are wonderful; and an anecdote behind one of the pieces reminds us that a number of historically established composers were themselves also viola players. One of the pioneering 20th-century proponents of the instrument, Lionel Tertis, famously rejected the score of Walton’s Viola Concerto, but instantly regretted his decision on hearing its lyrical warmth and piquant blend of delicacy and bite at the premiere, which was performed instead by composer-violist Paul Hindemith. Contemporaneous with these names were the composer Benjamin Britten, a violist who left us a number of works for the instrument, and Britten’s teacher Frank Bridge, who was an accomplished performer on the ‘alto violin’, too.

Although you can find viola concertos written as far back as the 18th century, it took a long while for the instrument to experience true emancipation and equality among the orchestral ranks. Think, for example, of the cellos and double basses basking in the limelight of launching the Ode to Joy theme in Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, and then try to think of a symphonic moment when Beethoven paid a similar compliment to the viola section.

Acknowledging its relatively recent coming of age, let’s pick out a few works that have belatedly given the viola the opportunity to air its individual timbre with its own repertoire. If these works are new on your ear, I hope you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

Jef Maes (1905–1996) was a Belgian composer and violist who described himself as a ‘modern romantic’ and who aligned with the Flemish romantic movement that declared its intention ‘…to make contact with the people, with the average listener.’ Maes led a busy artistic life as a teacher and performer. In 1955 he co-founded the Antwerp Philharmonic, the predecessor of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra of Flanders, which plays the following clip of his Viola Concerto (8.223741). Although the work was written in the late 1930s, it wasn’t premiered until 1956. The work’s charm and accessibility is apparent from the very opening.

Next, to a work cloaked in a degree of speculation. It’s the viola concerto that Béla Bartók began in 1945 following his arrival in America, but which remained incomplete at the time of his death later that year. Tibor Serly, the Hungarian-born composer, violist and conductor was asked by the Bartók family to bring the work to a publishable form. He completed the task in 1949 with a version that was widely used for the next half century, but generated mixed opinions. In 1995, Boosey and Hawkes eventually produced a second version under the supervision of Peter Bartók, the composer’s son. We’ll hear part of that version (8.554183): the opening section of the third and final movement.

Fellow Hungarian composer Miklós Rózsa (1907–1995) has long been associated with music for the cinema, having spent some 55 years in Hollywood. His concert music, however, frequently bears the stamp of the spirit of his homeland, as with his Viola Concerto (8.570925), a work that carries a certain astringency reminiscent of Bartók, rather than Kodály. Composed in 1979, the concerto was written at the request of the renowned cellist Gregor Piatigorsky for the young Pinchas Zuckerman, who gave its first performance. Here’s the vibrant and colourful conclusion of the second movement.

And so to the amazing sound world of the Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki (b. 1933). If you hold to the belief that imitation is the sincerest expression of acceptance, then his Viola Concerto (8.572211) can hold its head high, since it’s been variously transcribed: in a version with chamber orchestra (1985); for orchestra and solo cello (1989); and for orchestra and clarinet solo (1995). The third section of the viola concerto, marked meno mosso, brims with captivating orchestrations and solo effects.

Now for one of Naxos’ latest recordings of a viola concerto. Released in 2017, it forms part of a programme that won the Award for Best Classical Compendium at the 60th Annual Grammy Awards the following year (8.559823). The concerto is by Jennifer Higdon, one of America’s most distinguished contemporary composers, who wrote it for Roberto Díaz , president and CEO of the Curtis Institute of Music, who performs it on the 1697 ‘Primrose’ Amati viola, previously owned by the legendary Scottish violist, William Primrose.  Despite this highly august set-up for the performance, Higdon again proves that accessibility is one of her hallmarks, bringing the viola right up to date with jazz-tinged episodes.

We’ll end with our beginning and an extract from the release mentioned in this week’s opening remarks, a recording of works for viola and orchestra by British composers, performed by violist Helen Callus. From that programme, let’s hear part of of Walton’s Viola Concerto (8.573876). Written at the suggestion of Sir Thomas Beecham, it premiered in 1929, making it the earliest work in our selection. Walton downsized the woodwind and brass sections in 1961, and it’s from the serene closing minutes of the finale of that version that this clip is taken.

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