Whilst Riddle is perhaps not so well known as his contemporary and countryman William Primrose, he—similarly inspired by the older Lionel Tertis—is just as important in the history of the viola. In character he was more self-effacing than Primrose and Tertis, both of whom wrote autobiographies and pushed the viola as a serious solo instrument; Riddle preferred the quieter life of the orchestral player to the glare of the spotlight.
Riddle’s father, a member of the Royal Marines Band, was keen for him to become a string player of the highest calibre. Greatly inspired by seeing Albert Sammons perform, Riddle began on the violin and already had a number of concertos in his repertoire when he entered London’s Royal College of Music at the age of sixteen; but here he switched to the viola, finding that he took quite naturally to its larger size and more muscular techniques. Going on to teach at colleges in the UK, Riddle became a key figure in raising and maintaining standards of orchestral viola playing, encouraging fluent sight-reading, appreciation of the viola’s rôle within an ensemble and an architectural understanding of musical phrasing. His lessons often lasted hours, with much of the time spent on mastering studies by Kreutzer and Schradieck, and with a great concentration upon efficiency of posture and bow-hold. Pupils who had not practised enough were sent away in disgrace!
It was Tertis himself who in 1937 suggested Riddle as soloist for the first recording of Walton’s Viola Concerto; Tertis had previously declined to give the work its first performance, saying that he could not comprehend such a new musical language, and Paul Hindemith had given the première. On Riddle’s advice several alterations were made to the score, and it was his edited version of the viola part and his recording that Walton always preferred. The LSO here sounds significantly more modern than in its recordings with Elgar only four or five years earlier. Whilst more recent players have brought greater virtuosity to the fore in this work, Riddle’s reserved objectivity eminently suits Walton’s somewhat remote writing. This recording put Riddle more in the limelight than perhaps he ever intended and he became a popular soloist and recording artist: notable premières include concertos by Arthur Benjamin (1948) and Giorgio Federico Ghedini (1953).
On other recordings Riddle can be rather strident in the upper reaches of the instrument and is by no means totally accurate in intonation. The 1956 recording of Harold en Italie from the Edinburgh Festival is notable, if a little rough round the edges. Riddle’s authoritative solo line is rarely obscured and demonstrates understanding of the work’s programmatic content without being excessively showy or virtuosic. Here he uses a relatively fast, narrow vibrato producing an urgent sound; portamenti are few and fast, as was typical at a time when the device had ceased to be fashionable. The Serenade from Delius’s Hassan Suite (drawn from incidental music to an exotic play) shows Riddle’s musical worth in a compellingly simple but atmospheric 1956 performance. In Classical repertoire the 1940s issue of Mozart’s Duo No. 1, performed with Szymon Goldberg, is beautiful, agile and enthusiastic, with a palpable sense that both players are having fun with the music. Riddle’s vibrato is faster and tighter than Goldberg’s, but is none the worse for it.
The Moeran String Trio (1941) is perhaps the finest of this small selection of Riddle’s work. The ensemble is dominated by the quasi-French sound of Riddle’s collaborators (with a very fast vibrato at times combined with portamenti), aligning this group with many pre-war ensembles of Franco-Belgian origin. This is a fine recording testifying to Riddle’s great qualities as a chamber music player. He was held in very high regard in his lifetime and it is to be hoped that his recorded legacy will ensure he is not forgotten.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Milsom (A–Z of String Players, Naxos 8.558081-84)
Role: Classical Artist