My sister’s recent senior recital on the viola is the impetus for our new series on music written for the viola. We will explore music by Walton, Hindemith, and others while also getting to some of the great viola masters of the past, including William Primrose, Yuri Bashmet, Lawrence Power, and others.
(This link is for the first movement only. Feel free to click on the videos in the sidebar on the right for the 2nd and 3rd movements).
We are going to start it off with the Walton viola concerto, which is a staple of the repertoire and one that most violists will perform on a regular basis. Walton was an Englishman who happened to be close friends with the famous violist Paul Hindemith, to whom he eventually dedicated the viola concerto. Hindemith premiered the concerto in 1962 to an audience that included another famous violist, Lionel Tertis. Tertis had previously turned down the opportunity to premier Walton’s viola concerto and later said that it was the single biggest regret of his life.
Walton was an admirer of Prokofiev, which makes this a fitting transition from our previous series. He fashioned his viola concerto after the style of Prokofiev’s second violin concerto, which he considered the greatest solo work ever composed. His contemporaries – Elgar, Ives, Stravinsky, etc – were not supportive of his compositions, saying that his concept of musical logic and flow were unfitting for someone of his relatively young age (he composed this concerto in his 40’s, while most of his colleagues were in their 70’s). Because of these criticisms, Walton was extremely insecure about the work and revised it over ten times during the course of the next five years.
If you’re looking for a typical concerto experience, don’t listen to Walton’s viola concerto. It will not be a constant exercise in virtuosity like Paganini, a melodious meandering like Mozart, or a frenetic rage like Bartok. It’s value will be in the almost chamber music-like interactions between the viola and the orchestra, the intimacy with which the soloist weaves the viola’s lines through the orchestral texture, and the lyrical qualities of the thematic material. For example, the first movement is not the usual bombardment of technical fury that comes with any major concerto but rather a lyrical haunting that slips in and out of the shadows of the cellos and woodwinds without ever fully developing itself.
Another way in which this concerto is unconventional is found in the broader structural organization of the work. While most concertos will begin with a fast movement, retreat to a slow second movement, and end with a triumphant finale, this concerto begins with a restless Andante, moves to a furious Vivo, and finishes with a very mellow Andante. Listen especially closely to the end of the third movement, in which Walton brings back every single primary melody that he has previously introduced in the other two movements. See if you can identify where he is drawing them from.