By Mary Nemet | From the September-October 2023 issue of Strings Magazine
The viola was the instrument of choice for Haydn and Mozart as each sat down to play quartets. Mozart featured it in his sublime Sinfonia Concertante, K. 364, along with his inimitable duos for violin and viola, K. 423/424. Publisher and composer of the time, Franz Anton Hoffmeister was another ardent advocate. Tuned to the same pitch as the tenor voice range, the “noble beast” eventually fell out of favor, perhaps because it was too unwieldy and heavy to play and hold.
Celebrated English violist Lionel Tertis brought his instrument out of its twilight zone and gave it further recognition in his biographies Cinderella No More (1953) and My Viola and I (1974). Violists William Primrose, Paul Hindemith, and many others—by writing, commissioning, and performing major solo works—carried on his cause to bring violas into the limelight and their rightful place in the string family.
In the 20th century, composers increasingly began writing for the viola, encouraged by the emergence of eminent soloists. William Walton, Bohuslav Martinů, and Béla Bartók all wrote well-known concertos. In Best of Viola Classics by Schott, editor Wolfgang Birtel has selected 16 concert pieces that merit great interest. Some are well known while others may not be familiar, such as Johanna Senfter’s delightful Scherzo or Volker David Kirchner’s sultry Paso Doble.
After reading through the edition’s opening Telemann sonata, players may traverse tunes by Boccherini and Hummel before graduating to Kiel, Schumann, Joachim, Fuchs, Taneyev, and many more. Schumann’s enchanting Fairy Tale Pictures Nos. 3 and 4 are notable for their effervescent, virtuosic, and nostalgic melancholy tunes. Rubinstein’s Morceau de Salon, one of three that he penned, conjures up the Romantic era as does Joachim’s Hebrew Melody, perfectly suiting the viola’s burnished warm tone.
Birtel has not included staples of the repertoire by Stamitz, Delius, Rebecca Clarke, Hoffmeister, Vaughan Williams, Glinka, or Martinů. Hopefully these and others may be included in a second volume. However, he has here chosen a wide range from rare to well-known gems to whet the appetite of viola aficionados.
Because of the moto perpetuo nature of some of the works, a couple of tricky page turns are unavoidable—a good case then for performing from memory. All are clearly written mainly in alto clef with a few treble clef passages here and there to accommodate the higher range. Sparse fingering will suit the intermediate to advanced player who can devise their own choices. If you want to explore inspiring pieces to add to your viola repertoire, then this is the book for you.