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William WALTON (1902-1983)
Viola Concerto (original version) (1928-9) [24:51]
Edmund RUBBRA (1901-1986)
Meditations on a Byzantine Hymn Op.117 (1962) [11:15]
Viola Concerto in A major Op.75 (1952) [25:05]
Lawrence Power (viola)
BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra/Ilan Volkov
rec. City Hall, Glasgow, 16-17 September 2006 (concertos); Henry Wood Hall, London, 27 September 2006 (Meditations)
HYPERION CDA67587 [61:13]

As almost exact contemporaries, Walton and Rubbra would appear to go together on this disc like two peas in a pod. Their careers took different paths however, with Walton becoming a golden boy at an early stage, favoured by wealthy patrons such as the Sitwell family, his music remaining fairly popular from the start. Edmund Rubbra’s path was more of a struggle, coming from a poor background but achieving great things in his lifetime – his music has been neglected in recent decades, but is now seeing something of a revival.
Walton’s Viola Concerto was revised by the composer in 1961, reducing the weight of the winds and adding a harp. Such ‘improvements’ usually have some kind of give and take, and where the revisions take some of the pressure away from the soloist, the original has more of the cragginess of Walton’s initial intentions. The opening sweet-sour major-minor melodic theme and its accompaniment set the mood for the whole piece which has an ever-present restless quality, bursting out into vigorous liveliness later on. Walton toys with the listener, kicking in with rousing syncopations which dissolve swiftly into an almost salon-schmaltz waltz version of the theme. There is plenty of serious symphonic writing, and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra sounds on good form. The ‘toccata-style’ Vivo, con molto preciso is taken at a perfect pace, keeping everyone on the edge of their chair while avoiding helter-skelter rushing. The final Allegro moderato has everything: witty lightness, romantic themes which would have been a credit to Elgar, and that eccentric quirkiness which is uniquely English.
The programme is nicely presented with a solo intermezzo as filling for the sandwich, Rubbra’s Meditations on a Byzantine Hymn, which receives its first recording here. The work is a set of quasi-variations. By this I which mean that, while there is a central theme, the variety of the work goes beyond any kind of strict variation form or structure – while at the same time sounding like a set of variations, including a return of the opening theme at its conclusion. Lawrence Power not only negotiates the counterpoint and double-stopping in this piece with impeccable precision, but voices leading melodic lines and accompaniment into an expressive and impressive piece of chamber music-making. If this recording doesn’t help this work onto more viola programmes in the coming years, then I don’t know what will.
While both works open with a rising minor third interval, Rubbra’s Viola Concerto has a different feel from Walton’s right from the start. With the softer colours of harp and lushly expansive strings, the work seems filled with nostalgic longing at its outset, tempered by resolve and heroic drive as the first movement progresses. Rubbra’s solo lines are sustained and expressive, the later passagework reinforcing the thematic material but having a transitional feel. Listeners who know Rubbra’s symphonic work will hear connections between this and the Sixth Symphony, composed a year later, and some anticipation of elements in the Seventh Symphony of 1957. The second movement, Molto vivace, has a Sibelian feel to it, combined with eastern-European dance rhythms which are later transformed into some kind of ‘Spanish ancestor’. This is wonderful, eccentric stuff, but I wonder at the psychology that has both composers avoiding a slower central movement, with all of the opportunities for a ‘big tune’ that might seem to offer. Instead, it is the final Collana musicale or ‘musical necklace’ which gets the lyrical, meditative treatment. While the mood of the first half is sombre, there are enough moments of light to make the movement’s intense opening a verdant creative field for the listener. The middle section takes on a greater forward momentum, while retaining that elusive sense of restraint and melancholy. The final build-up and concluding, alas somewhat crass flourishes are preceded by a return to this atmosphere of intimate reflection on some inner emotional secret. It’s a shame Rubbra felt the need to sweep towards a somewhat abrupt and rabble-rousing cadence, but he has said what he wanted to say, and in the most expressive and beautiful terms.
This is a highly satisfying release, both for the excellent playing of all concerned, Hyperion’s gorgeous recording and for the programme. There are plenty of excuses for buying, even if you already have one or other of the excellent Walton alternatives of Yuri Bashmet and Previn on RCA, or Lars Anders Tomter and Paul Daniel on Naxos. The coupling is well nigh irresistible, and introduces a first modern recording of the Walton concerto in its original version, and the recorded premiere of Rubbra’s Meditations on a Byzantine Hymn. The cover design and illustration, Figure in the Moonlight by John Atkinson Grimshaw are the icing on the cake, making it into a highly desirable object which will instantly become what the Dutch call an ‘aanwinst’; a fine addition to your collection.
Dominy Clements                              


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