Below are the programme notes I have been writing over the past week for my recital on Friday as they appear in the programmes I have just printed (left!). Now all I need to do is practice some final corners and in theory I’ll be ready…
The programme of this recital contains three staples of the viola repertoire, two for viola and piano and one for viola and orchestra (here played with a piano reduction). All of the works performed here are from the Romantic period, and use the deep timbre and rich colours of the viola to bring out the differing moods and emotions of the music.
The order of these pieces progresses from a major work, the Brahms sonata, via a dreamy interlude (the first movement from the Walton concerto), to the virtuosic Enesco show piece, ending the programme with a flourish.
Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897)
Sonata in E flat Op 120 No. 2
I. Allegro Amabile
II. Appassionato, ma non troppo Allegro
III. Andante con moto
Johannes Brahms, considered to be one of the greatest composers of the Romantic period by virtue of his exquisite gift for melody, was also a virtuoso pianist and premiered many of his own works. Both the virtuosity of the piano part and Brahms’ melodic charms are in much in evidence in the E flat sonata, which is the second in a pair of sonatas which make up the Opus 120, along with the F minor Sonata (Op 120 No. 1). These were originally written for the clarinet in 1894 and dedicated to the clarinettist Richard Mühlfeld. However, Brahms himself transcribed the two sonatas for viola, and the viola’s rich sonority and palette of colours complement the sonatas’ emotional turbulence perfectly. These two sonatas, published as op. 120, along with a clarinet trio and quintet, were the last chamber works that Brahms wrote before his death in 1897; they are considered some of his finest compositions.
The E flat sonata is much lighter in mood than the F minor, with sweeter, more lyrical melodies than the stormy F minor sonata; it is less classically structured than the F minor, drawing on the freer development of themes of the ‘fantasy-sonata’ style. As in the F minor sonata, the phrases are incredibly long, demanding smooth legato bowing from the player and a sense of the arch-like phrase shapes. Themes are passed back and forth between the viola and piano throughout the sonata, in canon, duos and ‘stretto’-like sections; Brahms was pioneering in his equal treatment of both instruments in these sonatas, making them chamber music duos, rather than earlier sonatas in which the piano takes an accompanying role.
The lyrical first movement begins with a dotted Amabile melody, which forms the main theme. This theme is continually developed throughout the movement, contrasted with a calmer, sotto voce second subject; triplets add movement and various keys are passed through before a final Tranquillo section in the home key of E flat.
The fiery second movement is the last Scherzo Brahms ever wrote, and is very much the centre-piece of the sonata. It is in the dark tonic minor key of E flat minor and is in 3 sections: the two outer appassionato sections are based around a triumphant rising melody which is first stated in the viola, then taken up by the piano; building to a climax, the energy leaves in downward scalic passages. The middle sostenuto section, in the bright key of B major, contains a melody (marked piano ma ben cantando – literally ‘soft but well singing’) which in my opinion is one of the most sublime Brahms ever wrote; it reminds me of an Elgarian ‘Nobilmente’: grand, heroic and supremely beautiful.
The third movement is an extended theme and variations, in 6/8 but simultaneously in a slow 2. The theme, a grandioso melody using falling and rising thirds with a dotted upbeat, is ambiguous in its phrasing, leaving the listener wondering whether the viola starts on the upbeat or the downbeat (I recently changed the way I play this melody to emphasise the downbeat, not the dotted upbeat). Brahms plays on this rhythmic ambiguity in the five variations and the coda. The variations (in order) make use of syncopation, a triplet countermelody against the theme, demisemiquaver question and answer phrases passed between the viola and piano, soft bell-like offbeat crotchets against piano chords, and a minor Allegro decoration version of the theme. The calmer coda, piu tranquillo, reverts to the major and develops all the ideas heard so far, before the sonata ends with a flourish in the home key of E flat.
William Walton (1902-1983)
Concerto for Viola and Orchestra (1929, revised 1961)
I. Andante Comodo
William Turner Walton, an English composer born into a musical family in Lancashire, showed early promise as an singer and was sent to Christ Church Cathedral School in Oxford; he was later accepted at the age of 16 to Christ Church College, but never graduated as he neglected his non-musical studies. However, after befriending Sacheverell Sitwell (writer and art critic), he took up residence in the Sitwells’ attic in London and was treated as their protégée; through them he met influential figures such as Stravinsky and Berg. An early experimental collaboration in 1923 with Edith Sitwell produced his first (albeit controversial) success with Façade: an ensemble of 6 players with spoken word accompaniment through a megaphone (condemned by the press as “relentless cacophony”).
Walton had more popular success with the Viola Concerto, which was written for the viola virtuoso Lionel Tertis at the suggestion of Sir Thomas Beecham. According to Susana Walton, in her book, William Walton: Behind the Façade, Walton was somewhat confused as ‘he knew little about the viola except that it made a rather awful sound!’ Nevertheless, the concerto was written and sent to Tertis, who promptly returned it, declaring it ‘too modern’. Walton considered re-writing it for violin, but it was suggested he send it to Hindemith, who accepted it and gave the first performance on 3rd October 1929, at a Promenade Concert in the Queen’s Hall with the Henry Wood Symphony Orchestra and Walton himself conducting (although this was not without its problems, as at the first rehearsal the orchestral parts were all wrong, and Walton had to stay up all night to correct them). Walton rescored the concerto in 1961 for a smaller orchestra and changed tempo indications and dynamics; since then a newer edition has been brought out by OUP (with the viola part edited by Frederick Riddle) which incorporates several significant differences to Walton’s original bowings and articulation. In this recital, we are using the original 1961 version of the piano reduction, and I have reinstated many of the original bowings and phrasings (though not all).
The concerto is inscribed ‘To Christabel’, referring to Christable McLaren, Lady Aberconway, whom Walton harboured unrequited feelings for; Michael Kennedy wrote that “there is no need to know this to appreciate the lyrical melancholy and poetic longing at the heart of the music.”
The work was an instant success, as Christopher Palmer comments:
“It was a work of such obvious mastery that it probably did even more than Façade, Portsmouth Point and the Sinfonia Concertante—all already behind him—to establish his place in the vanguard of contemporary English music. The concerto exceeded all these in emotional depth, richness and profusion of ideas and technical assurance. The viola is not an easy instrument for which to write an effective concerto. The violin is a multi-faceted personality; and it can always ride on top of the orchestra. The luscious cantabile and expressive power of the cello can command attention at all times. But the viola is more introvert, a poet-philosopher, conspicuously lacking in brilliance of tone and ever liable to be blotted out by an unheeding orchestra. Yet in Walton’s Concerto we are never aware of any of these limitations….”
The whole concerto is characterised by Walton’s use of lush chromatic harmonies; flowing, searching melodies, an ongoing dichotomy between major and minor, and the romantic idiom for which he is famous. The first movement, Andante comodo (‘at a comfortable speed’) opens with a rising chromatic motif in the orchestra; the viola enters above this with the searingly beautiful melody that forms the main theme of the concerto (marked cantabile espressivo), which rises and falls, at times building to climaxes then subsiding, at others accompanying wind solos in the orchestra. A more animated section climaxes with a dramatic series of parallel double stopped sixths (of which Walton is especially fond). A dreamy, meandering passage then leads to the animated middle section, with stringendos, driving rhythms and virtuosic spiccato and martellato semiquavers for the viola (which incorporate some very hard string crossings!). After the flowing Meno mosso with its rising melody harmonised in sixths, an unsettled ‘inquietamente’ section accelerates into an extended orchestral tutti (shortened here for time reasons). The double stopped, harmonically shifting viola cadenza emerges out of a low tremolo in the basses and celli, before a recapitulation of the opening melody on the oboe, accompanied by rapid scalic passages in the viola. In the coda, Walton restates earlier themes and uses a falling motif, harmonised again in parallel sixths, to bring the movement to a meditative close.
Georges Enesco (1881 – 1955)
Concertstück for Viola and Piano
Georges Enesco (also known as Enescu) was a Romanian composer, violinist, pianist, conductor and teacher. A child prodigy, he entered Vienna Conservatoire aged seven, then continued his studies in Paris, where he remained for much of his life. His works are heavily influenced by Romanian folk music and their melodies; his output includes two Romanian Rhapsodies, an opera, symphonies and much chamber music as well as solo works.
The Enesco Concertpiece, composed in 1906, is a rite of passage for young viola players. Technically demanding and virtuosic, is It is often performed as a competition piece to show off the technical abilities of the performer, or to add a final flourish to a recital (as it is used here!)
Virtuosic techniques to look out for whilst listening to the piece include: (see below for illustrations as in the programme)
– Fast chromatic triplet scales and scalic passages
– Martèlé bowing (heavy, on the string at the tip of the bow)
– Syncopated slurred bowings (only found in Enesco’s music and extremely difficult to do)
– Double-note semiquaver scales
– Double stops in thirds, fourths, fifths, sixths and octaves, and chord
– False harmonics
– Alternating triplets, semiquavers, semiquaver quintuplets and semiquaver sextuplets
– Very high notes (too high for the viola, really!)
– ‘upside down’ triplet bowings (usually ‘down-down up’, this is ‘up-up down’)
Photos of the actual programme are below: