Five of the best pieces for the viola

As the viola takes centre stage at tonight's Prom in Berlioz's Harold in Italy, we reflect on some of our favourite pieces for the instrument


Ah, the viola. An unjustly treated instrument, if ever there was one. It is thought that jokes about viola players actually originate from the 18th century, when viola parts were often rather pedestrian, and as a result talented musicians were more enticed by other instruments, leaving weaker players to take on the viola. Sadly, those jokes still kick around today.


However, there are many wonderful, albeit often overlooked, viola works worth listening to. We have compiled a playlist of some of our favourites, available here on Apple Music and here on Spotify. 

Walton Viola Concerto

Walton’s terrific concerto was written in 1929 for Lionel Tertis – as many viola works were at the time – though he promptly pooh-poohed it, handing premiere duties over to composer and fellow viola player Paul Hindemith (see below). It’s hard to understand Tertis’s complaint that it was too ‘modernist’, as the work is overtly lyrical and mischievous, with moments of breathtaking beauty.

Recommended recording: Maxim Vengerov (viola); LSO/Mstislav Rostropovich

Hindemith Viola Sonata No. 2

No-one who has ever heard the virtuosic tour de force that is Hindemith’s Second Viola Sonata would ever dare to let a dismissive viola joke pass through their lips ever again. Composed in 1922, it consists of five movements set out in a roughly symmetrical pattern, with the dark and sinuous Sehr langsam at its very heart. It is either side of that third movement that the player really lets fly, however, in the short but fast-and-furious Sehr frisch und straff and Rasendes Zeitmass: Wild: Tonschönheit ist Nebensache movements. There is no piano to share this thrilling ride – the work is for viola alone.

Recommended recording: Nobuko Imai

Schumann Märchenbilder, Op. 113

These four gorgeous ‘fairy-tale pictures’ for viola and piano date from 1851, near the end of Schumann’s life. He left no clues in the score as to which particular stories he had in mind, but each piece is a perfectly fashioned vignette. I particularly love the headlong rush of the third movement and the gorgeous Lullaby that draws the set to a gentle close.

Recommended recording: Tabea Zimmermann (viola), Hartmut Höll (piano)

Telemann Viola Concerto in G

Written c1716-21, Telemann’s Viola Concerto in G has remained popular in the instrument’s repertoire, particularly for its high-spirited Allegro movement. It may even be the first viola concerto ever written. The other movements are also impressive, from the solemn Largo opener – which allows the violist to express the instrument’s warm, mellow tone – to the Presto finale which fizzes with energy.

Recommended recording: Simon Streatfield (viola), Academy of St Martin in the Fields

Bax Viola Sonata 

Another piece dedicated to violist Lionel Tertis, Bax’s viola sonata was composed in late 1921 and premiered by Tertis and Bax together. With a wild, restless scherzo sandwiched between two more moderate movements, the piece is fiery and expressive. What most appeals to me about this work is the exploration of the beefy lower range of the viola, one of the finest elements of the instrument.

Recommended recording: Doris Lederer (viola), Jane Coop (piano)

What's on at the Proms tonight?

Prom 71, Wednesday 5 September, 7.30pm

Berlioz Overture 'Le corsaire'
La mort de Cléopâtre
The Trojans – Royal Hunt and Storm
The Trojans – Dido's Death Scene
Harold in Italy

Antoine Tamestit (viola)
Joyce DiDonato (mezzo-soprano)
Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique/John Eliot Gardiner


The Prom will be broadcast live on BBC Radio 3