When Forsyth’s Viola Concerto in G minor was first performed at the Queen’s Hall Promenade Concerts on 12 September 1903 it represented a significant development – possibly the first full-blown concerto for viola by a British composer. It is interesting that when it was published in 1904, by Schott of Mainz, the title was given in French and the piano reduction was by the composer John Ireland – this was presumably Forsyth offering a paid job to supplement Ireland’s meagre income as a church organist. The first performance was played by the violist Émile Férir, to whom the published score is dedicated (‘à son ami Férir’). It was repeated by Dan Godfrey at Bournemouth on 28 March 1907, when the soloist was the Dutchman Siegfried Wertheim, Tertis’s successor as the first viola of the Queen’s Hall Orchestra. Yet Tertis ignored it.
It is interesting to see the status of solo viola players before Tertis came on the scene. At the first performance Tertis would have been the first viola in the Queen’s Hall Orchestra, yet he does not mention the work. This reinforces the impression that Tertis appears not to have related to this concerto: he does not include it in his list of British viola concertos in his autobiography. Soon afterwards Férir went to the Boston Symphony Orchestra, with whom he appeared as a soloist on twenty-four occasions between 1903 and 1918, and in 1912 he appeared with the Boston Symphony as soloist in Forsyth’s Chanson Celtique. When Sir Henry Wood conducted at the Hollywood Bowl in 1926, he tells us, he again encountered Férir.
Forsyth is certainly a master of the singing line, and was clearly writing for a player whose instrumental timbre was known to him. The concerto’s unusual introduction is notable for the solo viola’s questionings and contrasting assertive double-stoppings (appassionato), followed by wistful musings (lento dolce), all of which is eventually elaborated into a long statement. An orchestral tutti announces another idea without the soloist, but there is a pause before we reach the movement proper with the soloist’s ever-extended lyrical line, propelled forward by oft-repeated triplets, and soon repeated by the orchestra.
The slow movement is very simple. It opens portentously with a trumpet call, soon repeated by horns, before the soloist sings its elegiac tune elaborated over forty-six bars, this mood being underlined by the ensuing cor anglais. The viola returns more passionately with new material and over a broad span builds to a climax when the orchestra sings out the opening theme. The long closing viola cantilena returns us to the elegiac mood and the vision fades as if in a dream.
The finale opens with much orchestral huffing and puffing, in no way typical of the lyrical movement that follows which is constructed from a jerky dotted idea and a lovely tune that might have been written by Dvorák. The soloist is sometimes emphatic with much double-stopping, especially towards the end, but the overall impression of good humour remains.
from notes by Lewis Foreman © 2005