According to spotlight-hungry violinists, violas are only good for filling in a bit of middle-part harmony and should never be trusted with a good tune. And really, argue the cellists, seeing as the viola has the same strings as the cello, just an octave higher, what’s the point?
And that’s before you even get people onto the viola players themselves. ‘Viola players were always taken from among the refuse of violinists,’ wrote Berlioz well over a century ago, a sentiment often still wheeled out today.
Well, it’s time to think again about the unfairly maligned viola, and to help here’s a round-up of the six best violists past and present.
Carl Stamitz (1745-1801)
The viola began to edge its way into the soloist’s spotlight in the 18th century as the modern orchestra began to take shape.One of the few musicians who championed the violin’s mellow-toned cousin was Carl Stamitz. Yes, he started life as a violinist, as is often the case with viola players, but after a stint at the famous Mannheim Orchestra he began to tour as a viola player. Stamitz played for royalty and even played with a young Beethoven. ‘Anyone who has heard Stamitz play the viola with a taste for majesty and tenderness,’ wrote one fan, ‘… would he not then accept it among his favourite instruments.’
Lionel Tertis (1876-1975)
Jump now to the end of the 19th-century. Apart from Paganini, who only dabbled with the viola, this century didn’t produce any notable viola virtuosos. Until, that is, 1896 when a 20-year-old violinist decided to pick up the viola and went on to become one of its most fervent advocates. Beauty of tone and expressive intensity were Tertis’s hallmarks, as well as a determination to ensure more composers wrote for the viola. Bax, Bowen and Bridge are just three who wrote for him, and Walton’s masterly Viola Concerto, which Tertis at first shunned, was inspired by his playing. So passionate was Tertis about the unique qualities of the viola that he came up with his own design for a larger viola, which allowed the resonance of the lowest string – the C-string – to colour the whole sound.
William Primrose (1904-1982)
Behind every great viola concerto there’s a great viola player. And the man behind Bartók’s concerto was William Primrose. A Scottish violinist who swapped his e-string for a c-string on advice from the great Belgian violinist Eugene Ysaÿe, Primrose played in the London String Quartet before heading to America. ‘I had burned all my bridges,’ wrote Primrose in his memoires Walk on the North Side. ‘I had walked the Damascus road, seen the light, repented of past transgressions, and turned to the viola.’ Primrose, whose playing was characterised by an impressive technique, fast vibrato and bright tone, commissioned Bartók to write a viola concerto in the 1940s. Despite continuing debate over revisions and editions – Bartók died before he completed the work – it’s now one of the most performed and recorded of viola showpieces. Primrose premiered the piece in December 1949; his recording is still the one to hear first.
Nobuko Imai (b. 1943)
Thanks to the work of this 55-year-old Japanese player, the viola’s quest for world domination continues apace. Not only has Imai recorded over 40 discs, 17 years ago she set up the annual Viola Space festival in Tokyo, home this year to the first annual Tokyo International Viola Competition. Imai first fell in love with the instrument after hearing it being played at Tanglewood in America. ‘I had played both violin and viola in high school and university,’ she says. ‘But the sound of that viola shocked me. It was expressive and sweet as if it was singing. It eloquently expressed the personality of the performer.’
Yuri Bashmet (b. 1953)
Bashmet is, his biography begins, indisputably one of the greatest viola players around now. But while his recordings from Mozart to Takemitsu have been resoundingly acclaimed, this Ukrainian-born violist is famously unpredictable heard live. When inspired, critics agree his blend of impulsive daring and musical sensitivity can be breathtaking. Equally you might end up listening to a performance that’s, frankly, dull. But what is certain is that the 56-year-old Bashmet has dragged the shy, retiring viola into the fast lane by touring the globe and performing spicy new works by Schnittke, Gubaidulina and Mark-Anthony Turnage. He’s also set up his own string ensemble – the Moscow Soloists – and is partial to a spot of conducting.
Lawrence Power (b. 1978)
‘I just love the viola,’ said Lawrence Power (see image above) in an interview with The Guardian in 2008. ‘I find its sound very touching, because it’s very close to the sound and the range of the human speaking voice. It can sing, or be dramatic, and it has a lot of emotion in it when it’s played well.’ And the 32-year-old Brit – who turned down a job with the Berlin Philharmonic – has convinced many that the viola is worth a listen with his imaginative and intelligent playing both as a soloist and a chamber musician. It’s not just the viola that Power makes a strong case for. He’s also cast a light on many forgotten corners of the viola repertoire, recording works from York Bowen to Rubbra. He is, wrote one critic, ‘successor to Lionel Tertis, [William] Primrose and [Frederick] Riddle in the royal line of British violists’.