THE IMMORTALS: William Primrose

‘If Lionel Tertis was the viola’s first protagonist,’ Yehudi Menuhin once ventured, ‘then William Primrose was certainly its first star.’ And he was right. Julian Haylock explores the artistry of this legendary figure among British string players


William Primrose: a publicity photo for RCA Records, with signature

William Primrose: a publicity photo for RCA Records, with signature


Lionel Tertis (1876–1975) gave the viola a unique voice in the string firmament scarcely dreamed of previously. Rather than merely filling in the registral gap between the soprano violin and baritonal cello, Tertis opened up whole new expressive possibilities with his noble alto resonance and tantalising expressive personality, midway between laughter and tears. For West Hartlepool-born Tertis it was the darker, cello side of the viola’s complex personality that held the greatest tonal allure, but for Glaswegian-born William Primrose (1904–82), it was the instrument’s violinistic propensity for enhanced clarity, purity and agility that became paramount.

Beleaguered orchestral viola players continued to be the butt of a special kind of gallows humour – ‘What do you do with a dead viola player? Send him to the back of the section!’ Yet with the rise of Tertis, Primrose, Frederick Riddle and Paul Hindemith (remembered principally today as a composer) during the first half of the last century, the viola’s status as a solo instrument was assured.

William Primrose BYU (Submission date: 05/19/2005)By his own admission – his 1978 memoirs Walk on the North Side are essential reading – Primrose was hardly a model student. Starting out as a violinist, his natural musical ability outstripped his fellow students to such an extent that even a scholarship to the Guildhall School of Music in London (where he won a gold medal) failed to engage him. The real draw was being able to watch artists of the calibre of Pablo Casals (whose playing lifted Primrose ‘out of my seat’), Jascha Heifetz, Fritz Kreisler, Mischa Elman and Eugène Ysaÿe in action.

As one of the rising stars of British string playing, Primrose was ushered into the studios during the 1920s to make a series of violin recordings that included those two great Saint-Saëns warhorses the Introduction and Rondo capriccioso and Havanaise (with Gerald Moore, then like Primrose in his twenties) and in 1927 the Gavotte from Bach’s solo E major Partita (accompanist unknown) arranged for violin and piano by Kreisler:




Privately, though, Primrose was going through a crisis of musical identity as the sound he really hankered after was the viola’s, having fallen in love with its dark, ‘woody’ lower range and the plangent intensity of its upper register whilst secretly trying out his father’s instrument in early childhood. It was during his advanced training with Ysaÿe that he finally made the switch, a musical epiphany that climaxed in his joining the London String Quartet in 1930, alongside violinists John Pennington and Thomas Petre and cellist Warwick Evans (whose pragmatic approach to all things musical was to have a lasting influence).

‘I had walked the Damascus road,’ Primrose later reflected, ‘seen the light, repented of past transgressions and turned to the viola.’ For five years until the quartet’s eventual disbandment in 1935, Primrose made music at a level that surpassed anything he had experienced previously, playing masterpieces of the highest quality – as witness a glowing account of the ‘Song of Thanksgiving’ from Beethoven’s A minor String Quartet Op.132, recorded in 1934:



‘When I am playing the viola,’ Primrose later confessed, ‘I feel a sense of oneness with the instrument that I never felt when playing the violin.’ However, at this point in his career the idea of developing a career as a solo violist was little more than a pipedream. Yet he was never short of work, ranging from playing in theatre orchestras to giving his first performance of Walton’s Viola Concerto with Thomas Beecham and the Royal Philharmonic. Beecham, who had only attended one rehearsal, became hopelessly lost in the central scherzo, but somehow soloist and orchestra got to the end without anyone noticing. Primrose’s second commercial recording of the Walton (1953), also with the RPO but with Malcolm Sargent conducting, culminates in a finale that fully captures the music’s heady amalgam of rhythmic vitality and languorous introspection:




Life for Primrose continued as a constant round of picking up work wherever he could find it, when an invitation arrived in 1937 to join (as section co-leader) the newly-formed NBC Symphony Orchestra under Arturo Toscanini’s direction. This was an offer he simply couldn’t refuse, if only to discover whether the conductor’s legendary reputation as a podium ‘ogre’ was fully justified. It was, of course, although the Italian maestro took immediately to Primrose’s virtuoso precision and discipline, and invited him on several occasions to perform with the orchestra as soloist, including a legendary 1939 performance of Berlioz’s Harold in Italy:



That same year Primrose recorded a disc of miniatures for RCA with pianist Joseph Kahn, which includes a dazzling account of his own arrangement of a CPE Bach Solfeggietto:




and also at NBC’s request created the Primrose String Quartet with violinists Oscar Shumsky and Josef Gingold and cellist Harvey Shapiro. Shortly before Shumsky left to pursue a solo career in 1941 (he was replaced by Joseph Fuchs) the quartet made a recording of Brahms’s Third Quartet that encapsulates the sense of four legendary players at the top of their game relishing each other’s company:



When later that year it was rumoured Toscanini intended leaving the NBC orchestra, Primrose took it as he cue to leave with a view to seeking his fame and fortune as a freelance violist – an almost unheard-of step at the time. Yet he needn’t have worried as his four years with Toscanini had brought him unprecedented media attention.

Most notably Heifetz saw in Primrose the perfect foil for his own rapier-like precision and so began a partnership – briefly alongside cellist Emanuel Feuerman (who died tragically in 1942, aged just 39) and then 15 years later with Gregor Piatigorsky – that resulted in a series of iconic recordings for RCA. They began in 1941 with the famous Handel-Halvorsen Passacaglia duo:




Having already set down (amongst others) riveting accounts of Mozart’s Sinfonia concertante (1956), Beethoven’s complete string trios (1957–60), Brahms’s G major Sextet, Franck’s Piano Quintet, Mendelssohn’s Octet and Schubert’s String Quintet (all 1961), they wrapped things up in March 1964 with Mozart’s C major String Quintet and Dvorak’s evergreen Op.81 Piano Quintet:



In addition to his chamber-music associations with Heifetz, Primrose was also the member of two highly distinguished piano quartets, initially with Arthur Schnabel, Joseph Szigeti and Pierre Fournier, and some years later the so-called Festival Quartet with Victor Babin, Szymon Goldberg and Nikolai Graudan.

By the mid 1940s Primrose was riding on the crest of a wave of popular success. In 1944 he commissioned the ailing Béla Bartók to compose a concerto for him. Sadly it was left incomplete when the composer passed away the following year, but thanks to the tireless efforts of violist-composer Tibor Serly, the concerto was finally completed from existing sketches and premiered by Primrose in 1949 and then recorded with the New Symphony Orchestra of London and Serly:




The previous year Benjamin Britten (himself a gifted violist) had written Lachrymae specifically for Primrose. The passing use of tremolando (rapid repeated notes), forced harmonics and sul ponticello (bowing on or as near to the bridge as possible) add to the haunting atmosphere of a work which is far more contemporary in feel than much of Britten’s music of the late 1940s.

Thankfully the studio cameras were on hand to capture Primrose at the height of his powers during 1946 in a programme of three favourite party pieces. Here one can observe at close quarters his deftly cushioned bow strokes, erring towards the end of the finger-board rather than the more strident bridge, and the phenomenal clarity and strength of his left-hand fingers The recital opens with a Beethoven polonaise:



…continues with Schubert’s Ave Maria:



…and closes with Paganini’s Caprice No.24. Little wonder that when an amazed Mischa Elman saw Primrose playing this violistic tour-de-force he ventured that ‘it must be easier on the viola!’




[If the time caption isn’t too much of a distraction the entire programme can be enjoyed in superior picture and sound continuously at: ]


At this stage in his career Primrose was still playing his father’s Amati viola before selling it in 1951 in order to acquire the famous ex-Lord Harrington, one of only three violas in existence by the Guarneri family (the label declares Andrea as the maker, although some experts now believe it is the work of his son Joseph).

While sustaining an international playing career at the very highest level, Primrose also became a much sought-after pedagogue, initially at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia. It was during this period that he recorded a celebrated set of Mozart’s string quintets with the Griller Quartet for Vanguard in 1959:



Primrose taught subsequently at the University of California and (between 1965 and 1972) Indiana University. This was in addition to spells at the Juilliard and Eastman Schools and several specialist summer schools. Indeed, it was his teaching skills that persuaded him to accept an invitation to join the faculty of Tokyo’s University of Fine Arts and Music in the early 1970s, where he made his final recording in 1976. His last official appointment was at Brigham Young University as a guest lecturer, where he remained active until his death from cancer in 1982. ‘I’m naturally in touch with young people,’ he explained in a 1979 interview. ‘That keeps me mentally limber and, where possible, physically limber…I don’t allow myself to vegetate. The thought of retirement fills me with horror.’

Cremona Mondomusica - Sept 30th - Oct 1st 2016