Movement 1: Allegro moderato
Movement 2: Allegretto grazioso
Movement 3: Allegro con brio
The Viola Concerto pre-dates the influence of Impressionism on British music, but was pioneering for its presentation of the viola as soloist in a substantial three-movement work. Indeed, this is a viola concerto on the largest scale. McEwen recognizes the difficulty of projecting the solo viola above the full orchestra from the start by opening with two rousing calls to attention after each of which the viola plays unaccompanied. After a third, more extended tutti the viola is launched on an ever-extending cantilena which characterizes much of McEwen’s thematic treatment of the first movement. Each time a lyrical or reflective moment is reached the viola soon aggressively drives the music on. The viola launches into a wide-spanning tune (at 2'12'') which is immediately sung by the full orchestra after which the viola plays a lyrical pendant. The strings are then muted to accompany a new idea as the viola plays a succession of minims each followed by a decoration of upward surging semiquavers (at 3'36''), a treatment that recurs later. A notable extended lyrical episode after some ten minutes eventually leads to the quiet fade-out.
The lightly scored second movement, Allegretto grazioso, with the upper strings muted throughout, charming woodwind interplay, and a lyrical trio theme for the solo viola, provides a contrast in texture and mood. This good-mannered fairy music, very much of its time, takes its cue from similar movements in Cowen’s output, music that is no longer familiar.
The solo viola introduces the bustling finale, Allegro con brio, before the orchestra takes over. The soloist plays on, supported by the orchestra, before the second subject is introduced by the woodwind, accompanied by muted tremolando strings playing very softly. This idea is soon taken up by the viola, which constantly returns to fast passagework. Eventually the viola sets in motion an accelerando leading to the thistledown closing bars, the viola’s flying semiquavers punctuated by tutti chords.
from notes by Lewis Foreman © 2011