As the “middle voice” between the flashy violin and the sonorous cello, the viola doesn’t enjoy as wide a solo repertoire. Indeed, it is frequently the butt of orchestral jokes, but the instrument’s mellow – and melancholic – qualities have inspired some great music, not all of which is performed regularly. In our Viola Top Ten, we’ve included a few gems by lesser-known composers, as well as the instrument’s star concertos and sonatas.

1Hector Berlioz: Harold in Italy

Q: What is the world’s longest viola joke? A: Harold in Italy! I used to agree but, all joking aside, Antoine Tamestit’s Proms performance last year really did convince me that Berlioz’s “Symphony with Viola Obbligato” is a minor masterpiece, not so much a concerto for viola (Niccolò Paganini initially rejected it when he saw the sketches) but a work where the viola is Harold, the outsider trying to find his place. Tamestit’s peripatetic performance, moving in and out of the orchestral ranks (not, sadly, the one illustrated here) was revelatory. [Mark]

2Jörg Widmann: Viola Concerto

Speaking of theatrical performances, Antoine Tamestit’s unusual interpretation of Harold in Italy was certainly inspired by Jörg Widmann's Viola Concerto. Widmann, clarinettist, composer and Tamestit’s longstanding recital partner, lets the soloist move freely through the orchestra, allowing the viola to blend into the orchestral sound, create new colours or excel in more intimate lines. [Elisabeth]

3Rebecca Clarke: Viola Sonata

Rebecca Clarke wrote her Viola Sonata for a composition competition in 1919. It tied with a piece by Swiss composer Ernest Bloch who eventually won. As if this wasn’t enough, Clarke’s sonata was so well received that many thought “Rebecca Clarke” was a pseudonym for a male composer, some even thought for Bloch himself. First published in 1921, Clarke’s sonata marks the zenith of her compositional career and I couldn’t describe it better than the American viola player Jennifer Stumm: “Rebecca Clarke re-established the instrument as something that could be soft and feminine and wild and powerful.” [Elisabeth]

4William Walton: Viola Concerto

William Walton’s Viola Concerto was composed for the great viola player Lionel Tertis, who – like Paganini and Harold in Italy – initially rejected it, although he later took up the work, realising his mistake. The haunting opening to the concerto, full of bittersweet melancholy which so suits the instrument, is particularly poignant, while the brief Scherzo is influenced by jazz. [Mark]

5Béla Bartók: Viola Concerto, Sz 120

Béla Bartók’s concerto was written for another great viola player, William Primrose. Bartók wrote his sketches for the concerto whilst in the terminal stages of leukemia and died before it could be finished, but it was completed by his close friend Tibor Serly in 1949. Like many viola works, it has its melancholy moments, such as the introspective opening, but there also folk influences, especially the Hungarian dance-like finale. [Mark]

6Antonio Vivaldi: Concerto for viola d'amore in A minor, RV 397

To be honest, I haven’t always been a lover of Vivaldi, but the more I listen to his œuvre, the better I understand it and the more shades and drama I find in his pieces and the more I value them. Written in A minor, the concerto has a certain urgency, a feeling of sadness and restlessness – maybe that’s why RV 397 (out of Vivaldi’s seven concertos for viola d’amore) appeals most to me. [Elisabeth]

7Carl Stamitz: Viola Sonata in B flat major

A common theme throughout this viola list – and, most of all, our bonus item – is the clarinet (not surprising as we are both clarinettists). Carl Stamitz, a contemporary of Mozart and an important exponent of the Mannheim School, is best known for his works for viola and clarinet and, unlike Mozart, Haydn or Beethoven, he wrote viola sonatas. His Sonata in B flat major opens with a fetching Allegro, followed by a tender Andante moderato and a rousing Rondo. Fun fact: Stamitz was the first composer to specify a left-hand pizzicato. [Elisabeth]

8York Bowen: Viola Sonata no. 1 in C minor, Op.18

The music of York Bowen is rarely played today, but was popular at the turn of the 20th century, when the composer was dubbed “the English Rachmaninov”. Bowen wrote his C minor Viola Sonata when he was just 20 years old and still a student. There are hints of Brahms in his expressive writing for the instrument, but the mood is often upbeat. Lionel Tertis, who gave the premiere, referred to the sonata as “a vivacious and light-hearted work”. [Mark]

9Dmitri Shostakovich: Sonata for viola and piano, Op.147

Shostakovich’s Sonata for viola and piano was the final work completed by the composer, weeks before his death in 1975. It was dedicated to Fyodor Druzhinin, viola player in the Beethoven Quartet, which premiered thirteen of his fifteen string quartets. Much of the writing in the outer movements is bleak and spare, while the central Allegretto seems jaunty on the surface, but soon shifts into sombre territory. [Mark]

10Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Sinfonia concertante for violin and viola in E flat major, K364

The Andante of Mozart’s Sinfonia concertante with its contemplative melody is probably the best known movement of this list. Although the work was only known to a few specialists after its publication in 1802, it received a blooming renaissance in the early 20th century when English viola player Lionel Tertis included it in his regular repertoire and film composers started using the Andante in their scores. Michael Nyman’s score for Drowning by Numbers is entirely based on the slow movement, and it appears in Out of Africa and Amadeus (both scores were recorded by the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields and Neville Marriner) and Michel Legrand's pop song The Windmills of Your Mind, sung by Noel Harrison, won an Oscar for Best Original Song in 1969. [Elisabeth]


As clarinettists both, we couldn’t quite bear to include either of Brahms’ Op.120 sonatas in our top ten. Old Johannes, doubtless with half an eye on commercial opportunities, did authorise versions for viola and violin, however, so here’s Pinchas Zukerman purloining the E flat sonata for viola!