Thursday 16 March 2023

A wonderful sense of poetry: Timothy Ridout in Lionel Tertis' viola transcription of Elgar's Cello Concerto

Elgar: Cello Concerto, transcribed for viola by Lionel Tertis, Bloch: Suite for Viola and Orchestra; Timothy Ridout, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Martyn Brabbins; Harmonia Mundi

Elgar: Cello Concerto, transcribed for viola by Lionel Tertis, Bloch: Suite for Viola and Orchestra; Timothy Ridout, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Martyn Brabbins; Harmonia Mundi
Reviewed 10 March 2023

A gorgeously poetic account of Tertis' viola transcription of Elgar's Cello Concerto that completely captivates on its own terms, accompanied by Bloch's fascinatingly exotic contemporaneous suite

Lionel Tertis seemed to be rather proud of his transcription for viola of Elgar's Cello Concerto, at least he devotes some pages in his autobiography to an anecdote about playing it through to Elgar for the first time (with piano accompaniment). And interestingly, on the recent Building a Library feature on BBC Radio 3's Record Review devoted to Walton's Viola Concerto (written in 1929), the reviewer suggested that one of Tertis' reasons for turning down the Walton was that at the time, Tertis was much involved in promoting his viola version of the Cello Concerto.

On this disc from Harmonia Mundi, viola player Timothy Ridout plays Tertis' transcription of Elgar's Cello Concerto alongside an almost exactly contemporaneous work, Ernest Bloch's Suite for Viola and Orchestra. Ridout is accompanied by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Martyn Brabbins.

Elgar wrote his concerto in 1919, in an atmosphere of illness and regret thanks to the aftermath of World War I, his wife's terminal illness and his own ill health. Add to that a feeling that his music was no longer in style; witness the uncompleted post-war projects like Symphony No. 3 and the Piano Concerto. Perhaps we should count it a miracle that the Cello Concerto happened at all. Viola player Lionel Tertis was always seeking ways to extend the instrument's repertoire and his transcription of the concerto was one of these. Done with Elgar's consent, the orchestral parts are unchanged but much of the viola part goes up an octave. The version we hear on this disc is Timothy Ridout's own adjustment of Tertis' version. The transcription was premiered in 1930 with Elgar conducting and Tertis playing.

The opening movement sets the scene. The viola is nowhere near as powerful as the bigger cello, and what comes over is the lighter texture, alongside Ridout's seductively plangent tone. There is no question that this is a solo viola piece, and Ridout plays with a highly poetic, singing line. Brabbins is a sympathetic accompanist and the orchestra has some wonderfully subtle moments. Ridout's fine-grained tone gives the work a gorgeous mellow, yet lighter feel, yet always poetic. The second movement is delightfully light and fast, again Ridout's timbre bringing out the plangent viola tone, and it all evaporates wonderfully at the end. The slow movement is all singing melancholy, with lots of tender, intimate playing from Ridout. The opening of the final movement is somewhat less rumbustious than usual, and there are again moments of real poetry and the end has a profound poetic melancholy.

The beauty of this performance is that, as with the best transcriptions, you forget the original. Here we have Ridout's gorgeously expressive timbre, profoundly beautiful sense of a long singing line and that wonderful sense of poetry.

Ernest Bloch moved to the USA in the middle of World War I and stayed there until the 1930s (though the Nazi threat in Europe meant that he returned for good in 1938). He wrote the Suite for Viola and Piano in 1919 and it won First Prize in the prestigious Berkshire Chamber Music Festival Competition sponsored by Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, and Bloch orchestrated it in 1920 (also making a version for cello). 

Though Bloch had established himself with a series of Jewish-themed works, this suite is inflected by the Orient. The first movement opens with a haunting melody and a distinct sense of exoticism to the writing. When the speed picks up, despite the Oriental influence, the theme does have a rather Jewish feel and it develops in a remarkable large-scale movement. The second movement is remarkably restless, it opens with vivid, exotic drama and at times is almost a vigorous dance, but there are slower, more haunted moments too. The third movement is a gorgeous evocation of night, with a mellow, muted (I think) viola over fascinating harmonies and timbres. The final movement is fast and vivid, with a highly energetic viola part and a sense of exoticism that makes one think of rather hackneyed, quasi-Chinese film music, but then we slow down and the music becomes rhapsodic and intense, but there are faster moments and the last section is restless indeed.

The BBC Symphony Orchestra has a long and distinguished history of performing and recording Elgar's symphonic music and concertos, as well as Bruch's concertos, and here it is on fine form providing just the right support needed, and in the Elgar, clearly playing the Viola Concerto, rather than trying to pretend it is the Cello Concerto.

Neither of these two works is common in the repertoire, despite concern to continue expanding the viola repertoire. The Elgar is perhaps a special case, but with a performance as poetic as this, we must surely be convinced. The Orientalism of Bloch's suite might be a sticking point, but it is a vivid and attractive piece, here receiving a fine performance indeed.

Sir Edward Elgar (1857-1934), transc. Lionel Tertis - Cello Concerto. Op. 85 (1919/1929)
Ernest Bloch (1880-1959) - Suite for Viola and Orchestra (1919/1920)
Timothy Ridout (viola)
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Martyn Brabbins (conductor)
Recorded April 2022, Maida Vale Studios, London

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