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William Primrose - Great Violists
Henri CASADESUS (1879-1947)
Viola Concerto in B minor in the style of Handel (1) [15:21]
Sir William WALTON (1902-1983)
Viola Concerto (2) [22:33]
Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869)
Harold in Italy op.16 (3) [41:47]
William Primrose (viola), RCA Victor Orchestra/Frieder Weissmann (1), Philharmonia Orchestra/Sir William Walton (2), Boston Symphony Orchestra/Serge Koussevitzky (3)
Recorded 8th May 1946 in New York City (1), 22nd-23rd July 1946 at the EMI Abbey Road Studio no. 1, London (2), 28th November 1944 in Symphony Hall, Boston (3)
CD transfers by Mark Obert-Thorn
NAXOS 8.110316 [79:43]


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If it was Lionel Tertis (1876-1975) who put the viola on the map as a solo instrument, it was the Scotsman William Primrose (1904-1982) who established a more modern, brilliant style, gradually taking his distance from Tertis’s deeper tones. Modern listeners might have to “adjust” to Tertis, as they do to Kreisler or Szigeti, in order to appreciate them, but should have no such problems with Primrose, at least in Berlioz and Walton.

The Casadesus was actually believed to be real Handel when this recording was made, though with its delicate wind band in place of a continuo surely they must, even then, have realized that it had been, at the very least, thoroughly “doctored”? Under the circumstances one can hardly complain about an unauthentic approach – indeed, given its spurious romantic origin I suppose this is the authentic approach, though it might be amusing, one April Fool’s Day, to try it out with a dedicated original instruments band.

Tully Potter tells us in his notes that the conductor Frieder Weissmann is best remembered for marrying the soprano Meta Seinemeyer on her deathbed. On a slightly less “Trivial Pursuits” level, he was nearly the first conductor to record all the Beethoven Symphonies, but became, instead, the first of several – another was Joseph Keilberth – who recorded a “headless monster”: the first eight symphonies only. An immensely active recording artist before the war, he sank from view after it though his career lasted until at least 1960. Justly or not, he is now remembered only in relation to the famous artists he accompanied on disc.

The 1946 Walton recording was already the composer’s second, the first having been made with Frederick Riddle eight years earlier. Modern listeners, accustomed to hearing this concerto played rather more lushly and romantically, might find the present version a bit relentlessly brilliant. Walton himself tended to be suspicious of his own more romantic side and appears to be encouraging this approach, no doubt hoping to disguise the fact that even in this fairly early work the enfant terrible of Façade was acquiring middle-aged spread. Later, in well-upholstered old age, he took to conducting the piece rather more slowly. He had in any case, in 1961, considerably expanded the orchestration, so your best chance to hear the original leaner conception is the present recording, dated but reasonably clear. A further recording by Primrose, with the RPO under Sargent and coupled with Hindemith’s Die Schwanendreher under Pritchard, was issued in America by Columbia Odyssey and in Europe by Philips. It has been unavailable for at least two generations.

Primrose made three commercial recordings of Harold in Italy; the present version was followed by those under Beecham and Munch. To these must be added two live recordings under Toscanini. Conventional wisdom has it that the performance under Koussevitzky was the finest of the three “official” ones. I haven’t the Beecham to hand but quite frankly the differences with the Munch are so great as to render quite meaningless the concept of a “best” version. Munch’s Harold is bathed in the sort of softly glowing lights Berlioz’s countryman and near-contemporary Corot found in Italy; furthermore Munch’s climaxes have a euphoric blaze, a hedonistic splendour, which suggest a kinship between his own temperament and that of the composer. Koussevitzky’s tighter control but slower tempi mean that Harold is surrounded by louring mountains and threatening skies. The most notable difference is in the second movement (Koussevitzky: 08:49, Munch: 06:40). Koussevitzky’s pilgrims are a footsore if prayerful lot; Munch’s sound weary but at the same time joyful, movingly aware that their goal is at last in sight. In view of this, and some fidgety tempo changes in the first movement from Koussevitzky, I must say my own preference would be for Munch, which obviously benefits from 1958 stereo, though if it’s DDD sound you’re after you will obviously want something much more recent still (the latest version under Sir Colin Davis, for example). That said, the Koussevitzky sounds remarkably good for its age and of course his alternative view is worth having.

A useful compilation of recordings by the first great modern violist.

Christopher Howell



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