Cecil Forsyth: Viola Concerto

Cecil Forsyth was primarily a musicologist, with Orchestration being his prime publication, and his advice to Vaughan Williams on the orchestration of A London Symphony was noted by Adrian Boult. He was also a composer as well as a violist, and combined these diverse skills into producing a viola concerto that is powerful not only in the expression of the solo viola but the massive energy of the orchestration.

The concerto, which premiered at the London Proms in 1903, brings out various stylistic inferences from passionate Romanticism and foreshadows the early film scores. The first movement begins with a Wuthering Heights kind of dark foggy charm, never fully resolving but yearning toward the main theme in the Allegro con spirito. Here things change gears, bringing out the kind of momentum that makes Korngold’s violin concerto popular, with flowing tuttis and sweeping melodies. The exclamatory tutti interjections carry forward from the preceding prelude, and the cadenza explores the highest range of the viola.

The second movement reminds us of that of Saint-Saens cello concerto, with subdued viola lines eventualizing in sustained peaks as the intertwining orchestra takes over from below. A dark and up-tempo secondary theme breaks the subtlety, exploring a wide alto range before returning to the original theme.

A triumphant third movement carries a march-like tempo, bringing out the sonority of the viola with double, triple and quadruple stops only hinted at in the first movement. In this a slight hint of asymmetry is sensed as the tempo gains a more deliberate pacing. A contrasting second theme, now a consistent compositional signature, brings the concerto to a close in the major mode.

For the violist, Forsyth’s work provides a platform to showcase the real strengths of the instrument – the viola leaning towards emotions of the shadows, as well as its often overlooked ability to create technical fireworks.

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