Timothy Ridout Honors His Viola Hero on ‘A Lionel Tertis Celebration’

Ridout does justice to Tertis' music with his full-bodied playing on this album

By Inge Kjemtrup | From the March-April 2024 issue of Strings Magazine

Timothy Ridout was eight years old when a group of music teachers came to his school to give a concert and demonstrate their instruments. “They each played a short piece, and the viola teacher played the theme tune from Harry Potter,” Ridout recalls. “So I said, okay, I’ll do that one, please!”

“I went home and told my parents, ‘I’ve chosen the viola.’ They had a book of the instruments, and I’m pretty sure that they showed me the picture of the viola, and there was Lionel Tertis sitting there very proudly with his mustache and his viola on his knee right next to him. One of those iconic pictures. So the first time I saw Tertis’ face was on the day I chose the viola!”

A-Lionel-Tertis-Celebration-Harmonia-Mundi
A Lionel Tertis Celebration, Timothy Ridout (Harmonia Mundi)

Ridout was born in 1995, 20 years after Lionel Tertis’ death, so he never had the opportunity to meet the man whose long life (he was 99 when he died) was devoted to championing the viola. Along with the 30-years-younger William Primrose, Tertis elevated the instrument from its lowly status and inspired generations of younger viola players.

“He’s such a big figure,” says Ridout. “He is so linked with our repertoire. I love a lot of the British music that was written for him, particularly the York Bowen sonatas. Full, colorful, exciting music. A lot of the time when I came across repertoire, I realized, oh, that was written by Tertis, that was dedicated to Tertis, that was premiered by Tertis.”

Ridout demonstrates his admiration for the great violist with a new recording, A Lionel Tertis Celebration (Harmonia Mundi). The two-CD set includes music commissioned by Tertis, along with works he discovered, composed, or transcribed. It’s a sumptuous album, and Ridout’s full-bodied playing does justice to Tertis’ music.

In one of those incredible musical coincidences, Tertis and Pablo Casals were born on the same day, December 29, 1876; Tertis in the English town of West Hartlepool and Casals in the Catalan town of El Vendrell. The English violist and the Catalan cellist would become virtuoso players and fierce advocates for their chosen instruments. 

Tertis’ parents were Jewish immigrants from Poland, and his father was a cantor in an East London synagogue. The importance of the voice, of phrasing, remained central to the young Tertis’ musical thinking. As a violinist, Tertis gained entry to the Royal Academy of Music in London, scraping together the funds to pay for his tuition.

In his autobiography, My Viola and I, Tertis recounts how, after one of his first lessons at the academy, a snobby professor told his father that he would be better suited to being a grocer than a musician. “I think Tertis was the type of figure that, when he received these negative remarks, it spurred him on even more,” says Ridout.

Tertis was already playing professionally when he first heard the violinist Fritz Kreisler (1875–1962), who was making his London debut on May 12, 1902, with the Beethoven concerto. It was an earth-shattering moment for Tertis, who wrote in his autobiography: “For me the experience of hearing him play was like falling in love. His glowing tone, his vibrato, unique and inexpressibly beautiful, his phrasing, which in everything he played was so peculiarly his own, the manly grace of his bow arm, his attitude, at once highly strung and assured, the passionate sincerity of his interpretations… the most heavenly tone-quality and expression I’ve ever heard from any violinist ever since.”


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Tertis was determined to emulate the Kreisler sound. He performed with Kreisler, arranged many of his pieces for the viola, and the two were lifelong friends. Ridout includes Kreisler’s tender “Liebesleid” (Love’s Sorrow) and the majestic Praeludium & Allegro on the new disc.

Praeludium & Allegro in the Style of Pugnani (Arr. for Viola and Piano by Alan Arnold): I. Praeludium

Like Casals, Tertis began his career before the age of recording. His first recording dates from 1919, when he was already 45 years old. Ridout has listened to many Tertis recordings. “He has a very sort of intense searing sound, a lot of portamento, and in fact, I would say proper glissando, not just portamento. When I first started listening, I found it too much, but the more I’ve listened, the more I love this very old-fashioned aesthetic of sound and the connection between notes. He had remarkable facility. One example is Mozart’s Sinfonia concertante, where Tertis wrote a cadenza that extends Mozart’s original.” 

Although Ridout chose the viola at age eight (or perhaps the spirit of Tertis chose it for him), singing was his primary musical activity for three or four years after he started viola lessons. “To be honest, my real fascination with the instrument started when my voice broke. I so badly wanted to play music. I just channeled everything into the viola.” His supportive parents—mom a cellist and dad a jazz pianist—encouraged him to attend the junior department at the Royal Academy of Music. “It’s around that time that I got really serious and thought, okay, I really want to do this for my life.”

Ridout’s teachers include Jonathan Barrett and Martin Outram at the RAM, and Nobuko Imai at the Kronberg Academy. He also cites as influences James Boyd, founder of the London Haydn Quartet, and Lawrence Power (“one of the greatest violists alive right now”). Power and Ridout have performed together in the Nash Ensemble. In 2016 Ridout became the first British violist to win the Lionel Tertis International Viola Competition, which had been founded in 1980. Another close encounter with the legendary man.

Ridout’s first recording, made in 2017 for Champs Hill Records, was of the complete works of Vieuxtemps. “He’s known as a violin composer, but he obviously had a certain affinity for the viola.” He has also recorded Martinů’s viola concerto as well as a transcription of Elgar’s cello concerto.

“When I was reading Tertis’ biography, I learned that Elgar had approved the arrangement for viola and conducted it several times with Tertis as soloist. And when Elgar was too old and too ill to conduct, he tuned into the ‘wireless’ to hear Tertis play and wrote him how much he had enjoyed the performance. It is quite an interesting story, given that the Elgar concerto didn’t have the most successful premiere in the cello version. I think, in a way, Elgar was happier when it had a revival ten years later on the viola. I’ve really loved playing the Elgar concerto.”

More recently, Ridout paired Schumann’s Dichterliebe with Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet. “I realized that Dichterliebe would fit so well with the C string. I had a really interesting time of thinking how to best translate the music onto the viola. I thought about articulations and how to emulate a singer and the importance of the story of the music versus the sound of the music.”

Signed early Tertis photo with viola
Signed early Tertis photo with viola. Courtesy of Jerwood Library of the Performing Arts.

Given all the music associated with Tertis, it must have been difficult to select the music for the disc. “I had to choose the pieces that I love and that I have a strong relationship with. York Bowen was really important to me. I could have happily made a whole disc of Bowen and Tertis. A lot of people don’t realize that Bowen was one of the foremost pianists of his day. Tertis nabbed him as his duo partner, and they started touring before the First World War. The Bowen Sonata is an absolute masterpiece to me. I’ve also recorded his Obbligato to the Moonlight Variations, which I thought was a charming piece that people might enjoy.”


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Another must-include composer was Frank Bridge, whose Pensiero and Allegro appassionato are on the disc. Bridge was close to Tertis, and the two premiered Bridge’s Lament for Two Violas at Wigmore Hall.

The album closes with Rebecca Clarke’s Sonata. “I wanted to shed light on the relationship between Clarke and Tertis. As a young violist and composer, she would’ve definitely been inspired by Tertis. She went then for his advice before performing her Sonata. So I think it’s a nice connection to make in that musical world of that period.”

As for the shorter pieces on the disc: “Tertis was arranging and transcribing everything he could get his hands on, really. He played tons of short pieces by Schumann, Mendelssohn, and Brahms, British composers like William Wolstenholme, and Baroque composers like Handel and Bach.

“Occasionally at lunchtime, I’d wander around the library in the Royal Academy of Music and pull out the viola folder and see what I could take home and learn. I spotted these two books called The Tertis Legacy. I saw Fauré’s Élégie in there, the Mendelssohn Song without Words, the Brahms Minnelied. I find those pieces really charming. They’re easy listening, but also really beautiful and intricate.”

Later in his life, Tertis devoted much of his energy to developing a viola design so that players of smaller stature wouldn’t have to play instruments that were too small. “He wanted to make it manageable, and he experimented with the thickness of instruments and to make something that would keep a really great C string but be more playable to players of all different sizes,” says Ridout. “I think he was just fascinated with what he could do for the viola. I think he must have been a hugely energetic and stubborn man, always getting things done.”

Ridout’s own viola is by Peregrino di Zanetto, c. 1565–75 (on loan from a patron of Beare’s International Violin Society). It’s large, at 17-3/8 inches, a fine example from a Brescian master.


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“I really love this viola. It’s very special, and it’s worth the difficulty of it being larger and not particularly an easy instrument to play. One thing that attracted me was the C string. It’s powerful and deep, which can be singing, but it can also be bit more gruff, making sort of ‘dirtier’ sounds. I appreciate having a spectrum, from a glowing, round sound to something a little bit more human, less perfect. The other thing I like about this viola is the A string is really open. It rings clearly, and it doesn’t feel small or closed or nasal.”

His primary bow is by Joseph Alfred Lamy, and dates from the early 20th century. “I feel very comfortable in concert with it. I can trust it and know how it’s going to react.”

Rubinstein Viola Sonata: Second movement, Andante—Timothy Ridout and Chiao-Ying Chang.

Ridout has a busy 2024 ahead of him, including a performance at Wigmore Hall of the Brahms clarinet quintet, with the clarinet part arranged for viola. He’ll play the C-minor York Bowen sonata in California. He will also be touring in the US with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center.

He’s commissioned a new viola concerto from Mark Simpson, “who I think is one of the really great young composers around now. And I think commissioning is also a very important thing, as a viola player, to carry on adding to this repertoire and following in the footsteps of those great viola players who added to the repertoire.”

One could do worse than follow in the footsteps of Lionel Tertis. As William Primrose wrote to Lillian Tertis upon the great man’s death: “One comes to believe that people like Lionel Tertis will be among us forever. As indeed he will, but only in the form of his great spirit and his great dedication to the crusade he initiated so long ago. As I have written elsewhere, none of us violists could possibly have pursued our dreams had not Lionel, with his indomitable courage, blazed a trail for us.”

It’s a trail that Timothy Ridout, still not yet 30, seems to be following and extending—to create his own way forward.