Watson Forbes’ move from violin to viola was precipitated by circumstances of employment, the BBC Symphony and Royal Philharmonic Orchestras both offering vacancies for violists at the right time. Having had lessons initially with his father (a folk-fiddler), he entered the Royal Academy at sixteen to learn violin with Edith Knocker and viola with Raymond Jeremy (who had participated in the première of Elgar’s String Quartet in 1919 with Albert Sammons leading). In 1930 he furthered his studies in Czechoslovakia with Ševčik, whom he credited with teaching him how to practise and deal with difficult passages. Finally Forbes went to Sammons in London to learn ‘how to put the music across to an audience’. During this period of mature study Forbes was invited by George Stratton to join his quartet. The group was a favourite of Elgar’s and made recordings of his String Quartet and Piano Quintet in 1933 which Elgar famously listened to on his deathbed. Forbes’s solo career burgeoned at this time; he was also recording for Decca, and took part regularly in the National Gallery concert series organised by Myra Hess during World War II.
Returning to Scotland in 1964, Forbes’s duties as BBC Scotland’s head of music included overseeing the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and the Sir James Caird Travelling Musical Scholarships which had enabled him to go to Ševčik in his own youth. After retiring in 1974 Forbes worked on an extensive series of arrangements, expanding the viola’s repertoire significantly.
The recordings selected represent Forbes in his heyday. They include a 1939 performance of Bliss’s Viola Sonata, and Elgar’s String Quartet, both of which reveal Forbes as a notably well-disciplined player, with a tight vibrato of slight magnitude, a few relatively fast and light portamenti and a very pure tone. There is arguably a slight lack of artistic personality (a charge frequently levelled at Ševčik pupils) but drama and passion are evident in his playing, as found in the Sonata in D by English composer Richard Walthew (1872–1951), best known as Professor of Music at Queen’s College, Oxford. This delightful work (recorded 1938) is played with energetic drive and yet, appropriately, a sense of quintessentially English nostalgia. It is interesting here to note Forbes’ relatively straightforward fingerings – simpler than those of Lionel Tertis, for example, and rather more so than in some of his own editions (for which he is now best known). The quality of Forbes’ musicianship can be heard in his shapely phrasing, and he acts as a powerful advocate of the English repertoire that seems to suit the viola so well.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Milsom (A–Z of String Players, Naxos 8.558081-84)