March 2015

Get to Know Cecil Forsyth's Viola Concerto

March 12, 2015 10:34

I distinctly remember the first time that I heard Cecil Forsyth’s Viola Concerto in G Minor. It was the summer of 1989, and I was spending some free time while at the Interlochen Arts Camp doing what I love: seeking out viola music. I had located a recording of violist Patricia McCarty playing the concerto’s first movement with the Interlochen orchestra from years earlier and was immediately hooked.

ForsythWow! What a piece: it had bravura (including a flashy cadenza), big orchestral tuttis, and lyrical melodies; everything that the teenage me enjoyed in the great Romantic violin concertos, but suddenly here in a viola concerto. Why had I never heard of this piece before?

At one time, Forsyth’s Viola Concerto was relatively popular. It caused an immediate sensation at its premiere in 1903, winning critical acclaim and quickly becoming a favorite of violists. Over the next twenty years it racked up many performances, during a time when it was still rare to hear a viola soloist. But, as new viola soloists and new viola concertos appeared, Forsyth’s concerto fell out of favor. Only in recent years has the concerto again attracted broad attention, thanks in part to Schott’s republication of the sheet music in the 1990s and to Lawrence Power’s 2005 recording (which came about by accident; he had planned on recording Benjamin Dale’s Suite, but a problem with the orchestra parts required a last-minute substitution). If you are unfamiliar with Forsyth’s concerto, here are some reasons to take a look:

It is a rare example of a late Romantic-period viola concerto: While the concerto was written in 1903, its musical style is firmly rooted in the Romantic tradition, similar in style to the works of Camille Saint-Saëns or Édouard Lalo.

It is viola-friendly: Forsyth was a violist himself, so the concerto is idiomatic and shows the viola off to great effect. Forsyth was also well-regarded as an orchestrator, and the orchestration is nicely balanced so that the audience can hear the viola.

It is audience-friendly: Speaking of the audience, many viola concertos can be challenging for an audience. The qualities mentioned above that attracted me (bravura writing, lyrical melodies, and big orchestral tuttis) also appeal to many concert-goers.

It is a nice transition from standard Classical concertos to standard twentieth-century concertos: Moving from concertos by Hoffmeister or Stamitz to concertos by Hindemith, Walton, or Bartók can present a challenge to violists, both technically and musically. Forsyth’s concerto nicely bridges those challenges and also makes a nice chance of pace stylistically from other standard concerto repertoire.

It holds up well in competitions against other string concertos: Violists, particularly high-school violists, are often at a disadvantage when competing in concerto competitions; what viola concertos can compete against Dvorák’s Cello Concerto or Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto? Forsyth’s concerto, especially the first movement, really packs a punch, notably with its introductory section and the extensive cadenza before the recapitulation. Played well, it can really impress judges, while conductors appreciate that the orchestra part is more manageable than other viola concertos from the twentieth-century. Numerous violists in recent years have successfully won competitions playing Forsyth’s concerto.

But the biggest reason to take a look is simple: Forsyth’s Viola Concerto is a wonderful piece of music that you will enjoy playing.

Here is a performance of the complete concerto from May 2014 with Anibal Dos Santos, Viola; Enrique Diemecke, Conductor; and the Bogota Philharmonic Orchestra:

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