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William Primrose; Great Violists
Henri CASADESUS (1879-1947)
Viola Concerto in B minor in the Style of Handel [15.21]
RCA Victor Orchestra/Frieder Weissmann, recorded New York, May 1946
William WALTON (1902-1983)
Viola Concerto (1929) [22.33]
Philharmonia Orchestra/William Walton, recorded London, July 1946
Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869)
Harold in Italy H68 (1834) [41.47]
Boston Symphony Orchestra/Serge Koussevitzky, recorded Boston, November 1944
William Primrose (viola)
NAXOS HISTORICAL 8.110316 [79.43]


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The question here is transfer quality. These are such well known and admired traversals that commentary is pretty much redundant and Primrose admirers tend to concentrate on the superiority or otherwise of the Goehr, pre-War London Casadesus/Handel or this American 1946 remake, and the various recordings Primrose left of the Walton and Berlioz. All are pretty much self-recommending whatever your particular preference, notwithstanding the changing timbral nature of Primrose’s tone - its greater, tensile Heifetzian quality and faster vibrato in the post-War years.

To business then. Is it this Mark Obert-Thorn transfer of the Casadesus/Handel the preferred one or the Rick Torres for Biddulph? You can find the Torres transfer on LAB146 devoted to the great violist’s recordings and you will find that it is palpably inferior to this Naxos. The new release has greater body, immediacy and definition and catches Primrose’s tone with greater fidelity. As for the Walton I can only compare this latest transfer with the last EMI LP pressing, on Treasury EH2912761. Naxos certainly preserves more surface noise but, pound for pound, shilling for shilling, the Naxos edges it by virtue of its greater presence, without any artificial spotlighting.

There’s a difference in transfer philosophies when it comes to the Berlioz. The leading contender is Dutton CDEA 5013 in which Mike Dutton used the 78s to transfer. But Mark Obert-Thorn has gone for a transfer from LPs with their wider dynamic range. It’s a move that has paid off in this instance. The Naxos sound is brighter, and captures far more of the frequencies enshrined in the recording. In fact the Dutton sounds positively subterranean next to the newcomer with congealed bass frequencies all too honestly retained and an amorphous sense of the Boston Symphony’s string section. With the Naxos you can very readily appreciate the string choir’s separation and the greater sense of aeration in their transfer. There’s also some scrunch in the Dutton that one doesn’t find with the Naxos.

Given the competition A/B listening hands the palm to Naxos. The release also inaugurates a new Great Violists series, which is very welcome. Primrose has been well covered in re-releases, though can someone please find evidence of his Fricker and Rubbra concerto performances? In the meantime can I hope that Naxos gets to grips with Lionel Tertis’ imperishable legacy. Biddulph has announced a set of his Columbia 78s but his earlier acoustic Vocalions have been shamefully treated over the years. It’s time for a recording engineer and a company with vision and commitment to get to work and restore that body of recordings to the living catalogue, where it belongs.

Jonathan Woolf

see also Review by Christopher Howell




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