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Henri CASADESUS (1879–1947)
Viola Concerto in B minor in the Style of Handel [15.21] (1)
William WALTON (1902–1983)

Viola Concerto (1927) [22.33] (2)
Hector BERLIOZ (1803–1869)

Harold in Italy (1834) [41.47] (3)
William Primrose (viola)
RCA Victor Orchestra/Frieder Weissmann (1); Philharmonia Orchestra/William Walton (2); Boston Symphony Orchestra/Serge Koussevitsky (3)
Recorded: 8th May 1946, New York City (1); 22nd – 23rd July 1946, EMI Abbey Road Studio, London (2); 28th November 1944, Symphony Hall, Boston (3)
NAXOS 8.110316 [79.43]
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William Primrose trained as a violinist but an encounter with Lionel Tertis convinced him to transfer to the viola. This connection with Tertis is rather ironic as Primrose and Tertis disagreed over viola playing styles. Tertis favoured a deep tenor tone and a wide vibrato; he had had his own extremely large viola made up to his own specifications. Primrose favoured a lighter, more alto tone and used quite a fast vibrato; Primrose played on a succession of distinguished historic instruments. But if Tertis’s rich-toned performances were responsible for the resurgence of interest in the viola as a solo instrument during the 20th century, Primrose developed into one of the first modern viola virtuosos. He was able to play virtually anything at sight and demonstrated a high degree of virtuosity. He was responsible for inspiring solo viola pieces from such distinguished composers as Benjamin Britten, Bartók, Rubbra, Fricker and Milhaud. This disc, in Naxos’s Great Performers series, assembles three of his recordings of concertante works.

It is difficult, nowadays, to imagine anyone thinking that Casadesus’s Concerto could be by Handel, but when Primrose made the recording (the second of his two) it was thought to be by Handel. It is a charming piece, with much Bach-like figuration and Primrose plays it with great skill and obvious affection. He displays fine articulation and rhythmic flair.

William Walton had already made a recording of his Viola Concerto with Frederick Riddle. Riddle and Walton produced a fine performance which is notable for the inwardness and reflectiveness of the solo part. Riddle brought passion to the work whereas Primrose brings technical brilliance and virtuosity.

The viola concerto remains Walton’s finest concerto despite, or perhaps because of, the technical challenges of the work. Viola tone can lack the sheer brilliance necessary to dominate the orchestra in a full-scale concerto. Mozart solved the problem in his Sinfonia Concertante by tuning the viola strings up a tone higher than usual. Walton uses skilful orchestration combined with a tendency to write for the viola in its higher registers. It is here that Primrose’s skill comes into play, though some may find his account a little cool. Walton was never a great technician as a conductor and the accompaniment is at times a little untidy.

During Primrose’s lifetime composers such a Vaughan Williams had solved the problem of the viola as a concerto instrument by not writing one; RVW wrote two orchestral works with a solo viola part but neither is a concerto. Berlioz took a similar view when writing his concerto for Paganini. The resulting work is a concerto by no stretch of the imagination, but Berlioz brilliantly associates the plangent, meditative tones of the instrument with the dreamy Childe Harold of Byron’s poem.

Koussevitsky’s 1944 account of Harold in Italy with the Boston Symphony Orchestra remains a remarkable achievement. Koussevitzky encourages his orchestra to produce a warm, red-blooded account and each movement is highly characterised. Primrose seems to respond to this and his playing is rich and warm, something that this slightly cool player did not always achieve.

I am not sure how many people will be attracted by the name of William Primrose, but this disc couples together a pair of outstanding performances; though these may be performances which people already have on other discs. Mark Obert-Thorn’s transfers are exemplary as usual.

Robert Hugill

see also reviews by Jonathan Woolf and Christopher Howell




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