The best modern work for viola and orchestra?

The best modern work for viola and orchestra?


norman lebrecht

December 24, 2017

Beat this.


  • Jean says:

    How about Erkki-Sven Tüür “Illuminatio” for viola and orchestra..?

  • Rob says:

    Well it has to be the Walton concerto.

  • John Borstlap says:

    It is a quite strange piece: as if a score of a regular classical work has been cut into small bits, and then pasted together, some bits fit, others don’t, or they fit at other places creating unexpected clashes and contrasts in terms of style. It has something of Stravinsky’s ‘Apolon Musagète’ but much more ‘innocent’. It has a sympaothetic but tired atmosphere about it, like someone dreaming about music after a wild night.

  • REGERFAN says:

    Here’s other Martinu works I really like

    – Double concerto for 2 string orchestras, piano and tympani
    – Symphony #6
    – Symphony #1
    – Symphony #3
    – Symphony #4
    – First cello sonata
    – Fresques de Piero Della Francesca
    – First piano quartet
    – Variations on a Slovak theme for cello and piano
    – Fifth string quartet
    – Nonet
    – Half-time

    • Paul Davis says:

      Excellent list, totally agreed. I would add: the violin sonatas 1, 2 & 3, “Tre Ricecare” for chamber orchestra, 1st cello concerto, “1st” Flute Sonata, (there’s no 2nd!), 3 Madrigals for violin & viola, 3rd, 4th & 7th quartets, both violin concertos, concerto for piano trio & orch, Cantata “Bouquet of Flowers”…… i could go on at great longth!

  • NN says:

    Check out Pletnev’s Viola Concerto written for Yuri Bashmet and you will be amazed

  • Minacciosa says:

    Quincy Porter’s fresh, elegant, jazzy, philosophical and virtuosic concerto is imo decidedly the best concerto for the instrument. York Bowen’s is also a sheer delight, colorful and athletic. Walton is also great; Martinu is fine, but I’m not an enthusiast as some are.

  • William Safford says:

    I rather like the Sofia Gubaidulina two viola concerto. If I remember correctly, I heard the NY Phil perform it some years ago.

  • Jay Shulman says:

    Some great American violists championed Alan Shulman’s Theme and Variations.

  • Patrick Murtha says:

    Gorgeous. You could identify the composer as Martinu in the first two bars!

    Thanks to the commenters for the other recommendations, all of which I shall check out.

  • buxtehude says:

    Well it’s not a footrace. But I continue to love the Martinu extra-specially, as well as Marina Thibault’s performance.

    Whether there’s a Martinu gene required, or simply a minimum of immersion for the breakthrough, I don’t know, but since I fell into the Martinu sound-world I’ve had no desire to escape’

    It’s a gift that keeps on giving. Martinu is sometimes faulted for his large output: foolish error! Everywhere you look there’s gold, right on the surface, especially in the last 150-200 opus numbers.

    More string concertos? Try the 2nd violin concerto, with excellent recent performances by Frank Peter Zimmermann, Isabelle Faust and Julia Fischer (live with the CPO and David Zinman), to name three German fiddlers. (Impatient listeners might skip to the sublime 2nd mvt, for motivation to hear more). Try the second cello concerto, with Sasa Vectomov and the CPO.

    These are all on YT as are concertos and/or sonatas/sonatinas &c for oboe, flute, clarinet, trumpet, harpsichord and more, usually with choices of top performances.

    There are five piano concertos. I like 2 and 5; deeper musical minds point to #4. There are six symphonies, with the last getting the critical nod; I like #2.

    Martinu’s own favorite piece (critics’ choice too) is the 1938 double concerto for two string orchestras piano & timpani (H.271), inspired either by Hitler’s deconstruction of his Czechoslovakian homeland or his failing courtship of Vítězslava Kaprálová, an emerging conductor/composer, all-round knock-out and former student/lover of Martinu’s whose death at age 25 (tuberculosis, in the run from the Nazis in France, on the day they entered Paris) is still mourned by Czech music lovers.

    Last but not least — “Concerto da Camera” for violin and string orchestra with piano and percussion, H. 285, written after making it to the US following a scary 6 months in Vichy France, an anxious elegy to what he’d left behind. An especially lovely 2nd mvt.

    • Paul Davis says:

      Another excellent list, thank you and totally agree on recent performances of Violin Concerto no.2; i was lucky to hear Isabelle Faust live in Nantes a few years ago- marvellous. As well as the wonderful Vectomov in Cello Concerto2, i’d mention Cello Concerto 1, either with Chuchro/Cz Phil, or now with several other excellent modern interpretations; the 1st mvt has a 2nd theme plucked out of the air à la Schubert, and the slow mvt has those otherworldly harmonies resolving steadily at the end to a common chord but passing thru so many gorgeously scrunchy textures in dialog with the woodwind….vintage earlier Martinu.

      “…a gift that keeps on giving…” thank you for that phrase, so true; just two chords of Martinu, or even sometimes a solo oboe phrase…and you know whose music it is…an ever-refreshing and life-giving music, whether tragic & dark, or energetically optimistic, joyful & humorous….i’m happy that i have lived this life and heard it.

      • buxtehude says:

        “an ever-refreshing and life-giving music….i’m happy that i have lived this life and heard it.” — these have been exactly my thoughts too, since discovering M only this past spring.

        These days I keep imagining he’s due for popular rediscovery — the wide liking for him among musicians, the critical mass of great performances on YouTube, the speed & variety and compression of this music which seems just right for a distracted age– but maybe this is wishful thinking. I’m getting the idea that listeners are very slow to take on a composer new to them.

        Anyway glad to meet you.

  • Herbert Glass says:

    How about Schnittke’s splendid Concerto, which Yuri Bashmet took all over the world about a quarter-century ago?

  • Siegfried says:

    Thank Heaven for Martinu’s music. Timeless and wonderful.
    This year, I heard in concert the viola concerto of Brett Dean
    with Dean himself as soloist. A challenging, dense work, but
    obviously something special, demanding another hearing,
    and another….

  • Nurhan Arman says:

    Martinu is great! I also would like to mention Canadian composer Marjan Mozetich’s Concerto for Viola, Strings and Percussion which we at Sinfonia Toronto premiered with violist Rivka Golani in 2013. Here is an excerpt
    Incidentally violist Marina Thibault is a fantastic player. We are looking forward to play the Canadian premiere of Peteris Vasks’ Viola Concerto with her next season.

  • MacroV says:

    How about:

    Schuman’s Concerto on Old English Rounds
    Piston Concerto
    Rosza Concerto

  • Larry W says:

    There are two modern works for viola that may surpass the Martinu in emotional intensity. The first is Boris Pigovat’s Requiem “The Holocaust,” writen 1994-95 and first performed in 2001. It is a deeply moving work, having a personal connection to the composer whose family died at Babi Yar.

    The second is a viola concerto by Christopher Theofanidis, completed in 2002 and premiered in 2003. It is the greatest viola concerto you have never heard, being both compelling musically and exceptionally difficult technically. Midway through its composition in New York City, the tragedy of 9/11 altered the content of the third movement.

  • Peter Reed says:

    What about the recordings made by Paul Neubauer?

  • Gordon Davies says:

    What a useful thread. Fantastic!

  • Anders Lindgren says:

    As a violist, I’m always happy whenever someone shines a light on our dark corner of the musical universe. Martinu’s Rhapsody Concerto has long been a favorite of mine, it really sounds like a train journey through post-war eastern Europe ! Marina Thibeault’s playing is quite good; a nice sound and almost flawless intonation. There is, however, something too streamlined and, if I may differ from the expert opinion of NL, something impersonal about this performance. And it doesn’t help that she plays with a school orchestra and an anonymous conductor. If you can find it, please listen to the 1979 recording with Lubomir Maly´and Prague Symphony Orchestra conducted by Václav Smetácek. The Label is Panton nr. 8110 0024.

    • Anders Lindgren says:

      The Lubomir Maly´recording is to be found on TIDAL, a hi-fi streaming service recommended to all audio freaks. You get what you pay for …

    • buxtehude says:

      A very different interpretation, fascinating. Supraphon (the Czech label) posted this to YouTube a little over two years ago. (At the end it automatically links to the Southern Arizona Symphony Orchestra, Tuscon, soloist Hong-Mei Xiao, also playing the Rapsodia, seems like the whole world is doing this thing)

      You might check out a “channel” on YT by “salpetr” — a massive upload of Czech Martinu recordings illustrated with snapshots that look from sheer volume as if they came from an archive in Prague or Policka, and dating back seven years. The heart of M’s presence there.

      As to “train journey” — take a listen to the last mvt of the 5th piano concerto, which has a valedictory feel to it, written as Martinu was dying, though he may not have been aware of this. As it builds to a climax appears a galloping horse, a train alongside, clouds moving in under the horse’s hoofs — tell me if you don’t see these too.

      For the first twelve years of his life Martinu lived with his parents, sister and father’s assistant cobbler in a single tiny room way up in the bell tower of the town church, 153 often-scary steps above the street and well above the bell. Through a window and outside railing he could glimpse the town below, rooftops, roads, tiny people, hills in the distance, clouds.

      Later in life he attributed his distance from society, better understood today as Asberger’s syndrome, to this removal early in life. He said he continued to experience people as if from a great distance, part of a tableau. But the main thing he said (I wish I had access at this moment to my notes with his words) had to do with endlessly watching the clouds and the sky: watching it, maybe moving into it.

      Even before reading this I couldn’t help imagining in his music not just forward movement of some kind, sometimes close to the ground, sometimes higher than the clouds but motion that was always through the air.

      Part of its power maybe?

  • David Leibowitz says:

    I’ve been advocating for Martinu’s music for many years to whoever will listen. In the past several seasons, we’ve performed his Rhapsody-Concerto, Violin Concerto #2, Symphonies #1 & #4, and the “Memorial to Lidice” (a truly haunting piece). We’re performing his Cello Concerto #1 on Feb. 10 in NYC. Come hear this stunning work! ( Also, his operas need to be performed – every bit as worthy as Janacek’s (which are also amazing).

  • buxtehude says:

    You might want to list your programs on bachtrack, which is free for the simplest version. It covers the world and is searchable by composer though you may have to pay for this feature.

    Here’s what the current Martinu search looks like:;freetext=martinu;medium=1

  • Zheng says:

    Maybe this is too modern: Widmann’s viola concerto.

  • Matthew Pumphrey says:

    There are so many great works for this form. Here are my most modern favorite beauties:
    Nico Muhley – viola concerto
    Mark Anthony Turnage – On Opened Ground
    Don Fuend – viola concerto
    Glen Buhr – viola concerto
    Saygun – viola concerto
    many more and in the 21st century too.

  • Matthew Pumphrey says:

    I have to mention two viola concertos by William Thomas Mckinley. Both are recorded on MMC label. Very dramatic works with a sinister, yet beautiful quality. The kind of music you might hear as a soundtrack to an American Film Noir movie. Also a killer violin concerto of his on that label.