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(1876 - 1975)

Born on the same day as pioneering cellist Pablo Casals, Lionel Tertis was an equally significant figure in promoting the viola as a solo instrument, greatly augmenting its repertoire (which was virtually non-existent) with countless arrangements and transcriptions, and developing a projected sound that could compete with that of the violin. His mission was, of course, extremely successful and others—performers and composers—have since continued and extended his work, providing the viola with a genuine solo repertory of its own. Apart from performing and teaching, after retiring in 1937 he developed the ‘Tertis model’ of viola, designed to give the rich tonal qualities of the very large instrument (171/8 inches) he played himself, but with a more manageable size of 16¾ inches.

As was usual at the time, Tertis began his studies on the violin; he left home at thirteen and paid for his own continuing musical training from money earned playing the piano. After six months with Carrodus in Leipzig he finished his studies at the Royal Academy of Music in London, moving to the viola on the recommendation of Alexander Mackenzie, the college principal, and in order to fill the violist’s seat in a student quartet, there being no other viola students there at the time. He had heard Oskar Nedbal’s playing and was inspired to take up the cause of ‘the establishment of the viola’s rights as a solo instrument’. At this point he abandoned lessons and continued to learn by emulating violin virtuosi. To prove that the viola could sound good in higher registers he performed transcriptions of the Mendelssohn and Wieniawski D minor violin concertos and by 1900 his reputation was such that he was appointed Professor of Viola at the Royal Academy. The premiere of the first twentieth-century viola concerto (by John Blackwood McEwan) followed, and Tertis became well-known enough to stand in for his old hero Nedbal on the Bohemian Quartet’s UK tour in 1906. An enthusiast for Kreisler’s violin playing, Tertis began to use his style of vibrato, adapting it to the larger viola; as with Kreisler, this became a trademark feature of his sound.

Tertis’s playing, as evidenced by his Columbia recordings made during his most prolific period between 1924 and 1933, is at once powerful and resonant and suggestive of an important artistic personality. There is in his playing a sense of clear and direct projection that transcends other idiosyncratic stylistic details. The apocryphal description of Tertis as the ‘father of modern viola playing’ is, in such respects, perhaps deserved: here we hear a strong musical character with a clearly virtuosic bias. This said, there is much, unsurprisingly, that will strike the modern listener as old-fashioned (gloriously so, in my opinion!). Conscious adoption of Kreisler’s vibrato–laden style (albeit rather narrower and less focused than found with present-day players) helps him to transcend the limitations of relatively primitive recording technology; we can hear this in his Bach Chaconne (1924), which manages to come across as deeply resonant. It is said that Tertis rather rued his own enthusiasm for the portamento in this recording in subsequent years! His ambitious approach to the upper register of the instrument can result in a rather over-extended tone, as in the otherwise admirable Dohnányi Sonata in C sharp minor (1925). Indeed, combination of his vibrato with frequent recourse to portamenti gives Tertis’s playing something of a late-nineteenth-century French flavour. The energy of his playing is remarkable, heard particularly in the 1926 Dvořák Slavonic Dance No. 8, which feels always as if it is being propelled forwards; a feature also found in the performance of Kreisler’s La Gitana, which might even be said to be a little aggressive, such is its emotional ardour.

The selection of recordings here attempts to demonstrate something of the range of Tertis’s artistry. This includes short, single-side repertoire such as was common in the early recording era; for example, from 1926, the slow movement of Schubert’s Sonatina No. 3, or Tertis’s little Sunset which hints at the charming, salon-inspired nature of his own compositions. In more major repertoire, as well as the Dohnányi Sonata with its dramatic urgency, there is a 1929 performance of the Bax Viola Sonata, accompanied by the composer (and testifying to the skillful capabilities of Bax as a pianist). Equally weighty are Brahms’s Viola Sonata No. 1 (1933)—which, like the Dohnányi, has the important Australian pianist William Murdoch providing characteristically colourful accompaniment—and a powerful and fl exible Mozart Sinfonia concertante performed with Albert Sammons (also 1933), in which they jettison Mozart’s fi rst movement cadenza in favour of a wonderfully extended and quite un-Mozartian cadenza by the elder Joseph Hellmesberger. Here, the slow movement tempo seems a little perfunctory, and Tertis’s cantabile vibrato and portamento seem extreme by modern standards, but there is a sense of projection and indeed enthusiasm for this music from all players, including the orchestra under Hamilton Harty. Tertis’s playing may have been rendered unfashionable by more recent developments, but fresh listening with open-minded ears reveals an important and quite brilliant violist.

© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Milsom (A–Z of String Players, Naxos 8.558081-84)

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MOZART: Sinfonia Concertante / ELGAR: Violin Sonata (Sammons) (1926-1935) Naxos Historical
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A TO Z OF STRING PLAYERS Naxos Educational
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