Riddle Solves the Problem: The Walton Viola Concerto World Premiere Recording

As is well-known, the great viola player Lionel Tertis commissioned Walton’s Viola Concerto, but initially rejected the work, and Paul Hindemith gave the first performance with the composer as conductor in October 1929. On that occasion Walton found Hindemith to be a disappointingly “no-nonsense player. He just stood up and played”. 

Frederick Riddle
Frederick Riddle

I was therefore surprised many years ago to read in an old magazine that Hindemith was originally scheduled to make the first recording of the work, but withdrew. Seeking some kind of corroboration I wrote to Frederick Riddle, who actually made the recording. In his handwritten reply dated 12 September 1972 he rather circumspectly wrote, “Rather naturally at the time of these events in 1937 when I was invited to learn and play the concerto within three weeks I was not taken into the confidence of the composer nor the Decca Gramophone Company, but from what I gathered at the time I have no doubt that your facts are correct”. He went on to comment that “I received a small fee for the recording and I had no contract with the Company. On the other hand it was a great honour for a young man, and in those days it was extremely unlikely that any orchestral player would ever become a recording artist”. 

It was indeed. Riddle was just 25 years old at the time of the recording on 6 December 1937, having joined the London Symphony Orchestra straight from the Royal College of Music in 1933: it is said that Tertis (who had become reconciled to the concerto) recommended him for the recording. This turned out as a blessing in disguise for Walton, who cannot have relished the prospect of a recording by Hindemith, but who was very pleased with Riddle’s playing. 

“With the RPO Sir Thomas Beecham did about once a season a concert in which I could play any
viola concerto I chose, from 1953 until he died. He was the greatest influence on my life as a musician.”

—Frederick Riddle as quoted in The History of the Viola Volume II by Maurice W. Riley – printed by Braun-Brumfield,
Ann Arbor, MI, 1991

Though Riddle continued to play the work throughout his career and made recordings of various works as a soloist and in chamber groups he was never invited to remake the Walton concerto. Walton himself re-recorded the work with William Primrose in July 1946 and with Yehudi Menuhin in October 1968, but neither version captures the open-hearted spirit of Riddle’s performance (Decca X191-201, reissued in 1993 on Dutton CDAX8003). It would have been good to have a recording by Tertis of a work which he ultimately played several times (including under Walton’s baton), but this was not to be. 

Frederick Riddle – born Liverpool, 20 April 1912 | died Newport, Isle of White, 5 February 1995

Other Riddle Premieres: 

  • Malcolm Arnold: Viola Sonata Op. 17.
    • Written for his fellow LPO comrade, the composer was then still principal trumpet. 1948.
  • Arthur Benjamin: Viola Concerto with Sir John Barbirolli conducting the Hallé Orchestra. 1948.
  • Giorgio Federico Ghedini: Musica da Concerto per Viola ed Archi, with Sir Thomas Beecham conducting the RPO. 1959.
  • Justin Connolly: Anima for Viola and Orchestra, with Sir Charles Groves conducting the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. 1975.
  • Howard Blake: Prelude for Solo Viola Op. 402. 1980. 

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