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Viola Concerto
1 May 1901; written for Lionel Tertis who gave the first performance at the Royal Academy of Music in London on 24 May 1901, McEwen conducting

'Vaughan Williams: Flos Campi & Suite; McEwen: Viola Concerto' (CDA67839)
Vaughan Williams: Flos Campi & Suite; McEwen: Viola Concerto
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Movement 1: Allegro moderato
Movement 2: Allegretto grazioso
Movement 3: Allegro con brio

Viola Concerto
The Viola Concerto by the Scottish composer John Blackwood McEwen was commissioned by Lionel Tertis, and although this work did not generate a big following at the time it certainly drew attention to Tertis’s playing and to the possibilities inherent in the viola as a solo instrument. This was very much a Royal Academy of Music initiative, for McEwen had been a student there in 1893–5, and in 1898 had joined the Academy teaching staff after a period living in Scotland. In later years he succeeded Mackenzie as Principal of the RAM and he was knighted in 1931. McEwen and Tertis collaborated on promoting new music and young composers. McEwen’s Viola Concerto is dated 1 May 1901 and was first performed by Tertis at the RAM on 24 May with McEwen himself conducting, suggesting this was very much a collaborative Academy project at the time. The Concerto’s first public performance was on 12 December 1901 at Bournemouth, where Dan Godfrey chose it for the Bournemouth Municipal Orchestra in a Thursday afternoon concert with Tertis as soloist.

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

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Details for CDA67839 track 11
Allegro con brio
Recording date
19 January 2011
Recording venue
BBC Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff, Wales
Recording producer
Rachel Smith
Recording engineer
Simon Eadon & Dave Rowell
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