Best viola players: 12 of the greatest ever
Who are the world's most famous violists? From Lionel Tertis to Lawrence Power, we name twelve of the instrument's greatest exponents
'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 twelve best violists past and present.
The best viola players of all time
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-91)
Of course, Mozart is known as one of the most talented composers who ever lived, but it's less well documented how much the Austrian genius loved the viola. He often played the instrument in performances and readings of his own music, and he remains to this day responsible for some of the most wonderful writing for the instrument.
These include in his Sinfonia Concertante for violin, viola and orchestra, and in no less than six string quintets, all of which feature not one viola, but two. His Horn Quintet, too, is scored for two violas and just one violin.
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. And 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.
Rebecca Clarke (1886-1979)
British-American composer Rebecca Clarke was a viola virtuoso, becoming one of the first female professional orchestral players when she was selected by Sir Henry Wood to play in the Queen's Hall Orchestra in 1912. Starting out as a violinist, she was encouraged to take up the viola by Charles Villiers Stanford, her composition teacher at the Royal College of Music, and subsequently studied with Lionel Tertis.
Her 1919 Viola Sonata tied for first place with a composition by Ernest Bloch in a competition sponsored by Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, and is considered an essential part of the viola repertoire today.
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Paul Hindemith (1895-1963)
A viola player though-and-through, Paul Hindemith was also a prolific composer for his instrument, writing three sonatas for viola and piano, four solo viola sonatas, a sonata for viola d'amore and several concertante works, including Der Schwanendreher, written in 1935 and premiered by the composer himself.
As a violist, he performed with the Amar Quartet, which he formed in 1921, and toured as a soloist. In 1929, he premiered William Walton's Viola Concerto, after Lionel Tertis, for whom it was written, turned it down.
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 (pictured above). 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, 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.'
• Review of Nobuko Imai's Franck and Vieuxtemps disc
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Kim Kashkashian (b.1952)
Not to be confused with the 'other' rhyming Kim, US-born Kashkashian studied the viola with legendary pedagogues Karen Tuttle and Walter Trampler. A leading educator herself, she has taught variously at the Mannes School of Music in New York, the Hanns Eisler Hochschule für Musik in Berlin, and since 2000 at the New England Conservatory in Boston.
As a soloist and chamber musician she has also recorded a huge number of albums, from Bach to Berio, and has collaborated with numerous contemporary composers. A deeply lyrical and emotionally connected performer, she believes 'the viola is still in a state of flux, of experimentation.'
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 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.
Tabea Zimmermann (b.1966)
Despite describing herself as a 'musician, who happens to play the viola', Zimmermann is one of the world's best-known living violists, and unlike many of her colleagues did not transition from violin to viola, but instead began on her instrument at the age of just three.
A student of the great Sándor Végh, she has won multiple prizes, performed with the world's leading orchestras and chamber musicians, and worked with numerous living composers to premiere important works. She plays with a deep, dark sound coupled with a flawless technique - and has described the viola as a 'philosophical instrument'.
• Review of Yuri Bashmet's Walton
Lawrence Power (b. 1978)
'I just love the viola,' said Lawrence Power 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 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'.
• Review of Lawrence Power's Fin de siècle disc
Timothy Ridout (b.1995)
Still in his 20s, British violist Timothy Ridout has been making waves in the musical world since winning first prize at the Lionel Tertis International Viola Competition in 2016. A former student of Martin Outram at the Royal Academy of Music and Nobuko Imai at the Kronberg Academy, he's a former BBC New Generation Artist, Borletti-Buitoni Trust fellow, and winner of the Royal Philharmonic Society 2023 Young Artist Award.
Equally sought after as a soloist and chamber musician, Ridout is the perfect example of a modern viola player, as far removed from the tired, derogatory stereotypes as one can get. A skilled and thoughtful player, he artfully captures the myriad colours and moods of this once-misunderstood instrument.