Walton – Viola Concerto

by Max Derrickson

William Turner Walton     (Born in Lancashire, Oldham, England in 1902; died in Forio d’Ischia, Italy in 1983)

Viola Concerto
1. Andante comodo
2. Vivo, con molto preciso
3. Allegro moderato

This masterful Viola Concerto was written by Walton in 1929 when he was 27.  He had not quite achieved fame at this point, but he certainly was well known for an earlier work called Façade – a chamber work made scandalous by their being set to the edgy poems of his friend Edith Sitwell.  Walton was essentially a self-taught composer, and as such not well known inEngland, but he managed to make the most of the friendships he so easily acquired in the music world.  Such was the case with his Viola Concerto.  Famous conductor and friend of Walton – Sir Thomas Beecham – suggested to Walton that he write a concerto for the great violist Lionel Tertis.  Despite Walton’s best efforts, however, Tertis turned the premiere down (much to his regret later) and it was instead first performed in 1929 by another of Walton’s friends, the German composer and violist Paul Hindemith.
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What decades of audiences have come to love is the extraordinary way in which Walton’s seemingly modernistic harmonies compliment his mature intuition for long, beautiful melodies.  Although the feel of the Concerto is generally very lyrical, this is a deceptively daunting piece that demands virtuosity of its viola soloist.  There is a wealth of intelligence behind the work’s structural integrity, as well, but most impressive is Walton’s uncanny talent in writing so naturalistically for the viola’s gorgeous and facile abilities that so few composers have fully appreciated.

The first theme from the soloist illustrates these features perfectly.  Within a few bars the viola soloist is singing with soaring strength, and we are caught up in its lushness.  There is lots of material to soar through, too, in this first movement, not the least is some jaunty and fun orchestral dancing.  But the movement ends somberly – there is a dark hue in the viola’s voice which is captured superbly by Walton’s falling thirds.
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over a faintly chanting bass clarinet vamp, until it all comes to a curious and uncommitted stop . . . followed by a long pause . . ..  A brilliant moment arrives then, as though the movement’s theme had been frozen in the preceding silence
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