The Concerto for Viola and Orchestra was 26-year-old William Walton’s first large scale, serious composition for orchestra, written in 1928. The conductor Sir Thomas Beecham suggested Walton undertake such a work for the preeminent English viola soloist of the time, Lionel Tertis, who dismissed it immediately by mailing back the score. Paul Hindemith, another active viola soloist and fine composer, got wind of the composition and premiered it at the BBC Proms in 1929. (It was only after the success of the premiere that Tertis incorporated the piece into his repertoire and performed it many times.) The Viola Concerto was an immediate success that launched Walton into an international career. He revised the piece in 1962, and it is this second version that most violists play.
The Viola Concerto is a unique demonstration of tradition mixed with modern and is cyclical, in three movements - two introspective, reflective movements flank a brilliant scherzo, much inspired by Prokofiev’s first Violin Concerto. The first movement is a masterful sonata that introduces the main themes in a variety of different characters, some of which include lush, rolling strings, wistful pizzicati, and energized jabbing accompaniments. The second movement scherzo nods to Walton’s jazz experience with bouncing syncopations and virtuoso runs of sixteenth notes. The final movement is the work’s pièce de résistance. It begins with an elegant fugue, moves into a dulcet, melancholic second theme, then launches into an impressive and grand orchestral tutti before culminating in a longing closing section that mixes in the main themes from the first movement. It is no wonder, then, why Sir Donald Tovey calls the Walton Viola Concerto “one of the most important modern concertos for any instrument.”