‘Why don’t you play my Viola Concerto more often?’ Quincy Porter once asked William Primrose. Well, replied the canny Scotsman (according to his memoirs), if you don’t run off with an heiress or jump off a building you’re not likely to get many performances these days. The difficulties for violists playing concertos were not confined either to Primrose or to Porter. Resident section leaders would routinely snaffle jobs in certain orchestras – there was at least one leading American orchestra with which Primrose, the greatest virtuoso of the age on his instrument, never gave a solo engagement for precisely this reason. In any case it didn’t avail Porter, of whose concerto Primrose was a strong admirer.
Porter must have known some of this, as he was a violist himself. His Concerto was composed in 1948 in four concise movements. Its opening is lazy, meandering, a recitative interlaced with burbling winds and noble brass with the viola sticking to its mid-range and espousing lyric verities. It has a similar ease as the Walton but lacks its Mediterranean languor and sensual appeal. Melancholy is a component too in an intimate way, but Porter unleashes his down-home self in the finale which is a barn dance of great dynamism, with witty wind writing above the strutting figures.
As this is an all-viola disc Eliesha Nelson is centre-stage. She plays the Speed Etude – written in the same year as the concerto - with just the right moto perpetuo decisiveness. The piano’s widely spaced writing allows the viola the middle ground once again and its figuration is thereby perfectly audible. The Duo for viola and harp or harpsichord is heard in both versions. It sports a long line, speeds up for a jazz-rich central panel and ends tenderly. The harp version sounds the more ‘playable’ but there’s a certain tangy quality about the harpsichord version that I like too.
If you were a Porter fan back in 1950 you’d have surveyed the discography with interest. The composer had set down his own version of the Solo Suite for Musicraft back in 1939. The Gordon Quartet had taken a punt on the Third Quartet (composed in 1930) for Columbia whilst a strictly anonymous group had set down the Sixth for the small Yaddo label, a company that had also issued the Quintet for flute and strings and some incidental music. You can now find Louis Kaufman and Artur Balsam’s recording of the Second Violin Sonata on Music & Arts CD638. These early recordings point to the fact that Porter did enjoy a certain degree of interest on disc. Of late there has been increasing interest on CD, not least in his chamber music. It would certainly be good to hear that Musicraft disc, which preserves his own playing. But certainly one would hardly find much fault with Nelson’s playing of this tightly constructed and taut work. Its baroque cadences are strikingly explicit and it’s most personalised in the free-wheeling barn dance flavours of the finale, ones that remind us of the Concerto, still nearly twenty years into the future.
He touches on Blues most obviously in Blues Lontains
for Viola and Piano, the earliest work here, dating from 1928 – it’s alternately rugged and keening. But he’s at his most exploratory in the Duo for violin and viola of 1954, where he uses dissonance creatively and malleably. The see-sawing violin figures of the central Lento contrast with the viola’s richer freedoms, and both conjoin in an ebullient and engaging dialogue in the finale. Porter had no problems with finales. He gave them a stomping good time.
Nelson is a fine guide, judging Porter’s temper and tone with real sensitivity and skill. She has the multi-faceted John McLaughlin Williams with her – playing piano, violin, harpsichord and conducting in the Concerto. The only thing he doesn’t do is play the harp. For shame!
Warmly recorded, the engineers have ensured that Porter’s discreet aural promotion of the viola is securely projected. If you enjoy Robert Russell Bennett, and like the kind of Americana that Louis Kaufman liked – Piston, Barber et al – then you will find Porter very much to your liking.
And a second review – more of a footnote really … from Rob Barnett:-
There was a time when, in cassette tape exchanges with American collectors I was discovering US composers at a dizzying rate. Some stuck with me and some did not. Porter just didn’t. Good friends sent me tape transfers of LPs of his Symphony No. 2 with the Louisville Orchestra and the redoubtable Robert Whitney on Louisville LOU642 and the first recording of the Viola Concerto with Paul Angerer and the Vienna Symphony Orchestra/Max Schönherr on Desto D410. More recently there have been CDs of the string quartets on Naxos and of the two symphonies on Albany. The Viola Concerto first saw light of day at the American Music Festival on 16 May 1948 where the solo was Paul Doktor and the CBS Symphony Orchestra was piloted by Dean Dixon.
Porter studied with André Caplet and Vincent d'Indy in France and with Ernest Bloch in New York. Howard Hanson admired the sheer beauty of Porter’s writing. Sure enough it is that lyricism, as liberated by Eliesha Nelson and John McLaughlin Williams, that is to the fore in the Viola Concerto – a work which left me cold all those years ago when listening to the Angerer version. Nelson lays bare the limpid and singing soul of the Concerto and also makes a steadfast and emotionally informed case for the other shorter and mood-varied pieces which together make up Porter’s complete music for viola.