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  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

RECORDING OF THE MONTH

 

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Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958) Suite for viola and orchestra (Group I only) (1934) [7:53]
Herbert HOWELLS (1892-1983) Elegy for viola, string quartet and string orchestra (1917) [10:37]
William WALTON (1902-1983) Viola Concerto in A minor (1928-29, rev 1962) [27:31]
York BOWEN (1884-1961) Viola Concerto in C minor, Op.25 (1907) [31:51] (cadenza by Helen Callus)
Helen Callus (viola)
solo string quartet (principals of the NZSO): Vesaa-Matti Leppanen (violin); David Gilling (violin); Vyvyan Yendoll  (viola); David Chickering (cello)
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra/Marc Taddei
rec. Michael Fowler Center Auditorium, Wellington, New Zealand, 9-11 February 2005. DDD
ASV CD DCA 1181 [78:24]


This CD must be one of the best issues 2006 – at least for me! Three ‘old favourites’ and one nearly new ‘Desert Island’ piece are crammed onto this exciting release. If I were stranded on the atoll I would want the entire CD – and not just excerpts or single movements – it would be all or nothing. And I confess that I would probably swap Shakespeare to have the Howells Elegy and the Bowen Viola Concerto at my side. Incidentally, I have always felt that I would rather have the Roman Catholic ‘Daily Office’ with me than the Bible – it contains all the best bits with a lot of other fine prose, sermons, prayers, liturgy and poetry – yet it is not in King James’ English … Hmmm.
 
Back to the music. I first came across the heart-achingly beautiful Elegy by Herbert Howells when I bought the old Lyrita recording (SRCS 69) which was issued in the mid to late ’seventies. It is one of the few works I played over and over again (not including Hard Days Night or Help, of course – I must have worn my father’s stereogram out with those hits!). In fact it was my first introduction to the orchestral music of Howells. How thankful I am that nearly all this relatively unknown repertoire is currently available on CD.
 
The Elegy is the composer’s response to the horrors of the Great War. The programme notes remind us that some 37 students at the Royal College of Music lost their lives in that ‘war to end all wars.’ The piece is dedicated to the promising young viola player – Francis Purcell Warren – known as ‘Bunny’.  For the record, he was a Second Lieutenant in the South Lancashire Regiment. He was killed on 3 March 1916.
 
It has been remarked a number of times that there is a relationship between the Elegy and Ralph Vaughan Williams Tallis Fantasia. However Rob Barnett notices pre-echoes of Gerald Finzi’s works for string orchestra and even Sam Barber’s renowned ‘Adagio’. Whether these allusions are exaggerated is not to the point. The important thing is that the Elegy is a wonderfully constructed work that deserves its place amongst the great string orchestra works in the repertoire. I do not need to rehearse them, but they do include Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro, Tippett’s Double Concerto and the lesser known Elegy by Harold Truscott.
 
The Vaughan Williams work is, in one way only, a bit of a let-down. Let me explain. The viola was one of the composer’s favourite instruments. Most lovers of English music will be ‘au fait’ with Flos Campi – that great but enigmatic work for viola soloist, choir and small orchestra. However RVW was to compose a set of ‘character pieces’ for that instrument and orchestra. But here is the rub - there are in fact eight movements – but only three are given on this CD. The composer organised his eight movements into three groups – of three, two and three. We hear only the first group on this recording. Before I get carried away I do realise that it was not possible to squeeze the other two ‘sets’ onto this CD – and I certainly would not have wanted any of the other works dropped! But perhaps it is not so bad – the composer himself insisted that the three groups of pieces could be played in order or as three separate works.
 
We have three lovely pieces –a Prelude that nods to J.S.B., a gorgeous Carol that exhibits Vaughan Williams’ membership of the ‘folksong’ school and finally the Christmas Dance has a definite rustic feel that excludes the subtlety of folk song. Maybe this is not the composer’s masterpiece – but it certainly deserves to be played much more often that it is. There are only three versions of this work (or parts of this work) available at the moment. This compares to some sixty recordings of the Lark Ascending in the catalogue.
 
I must confess that the Violin Concerto is my favourite of the Walton ‘big three’.  I have never really come to terms with the Cello Concerto. But I have known and enjoyed the one for viola for many years. I first heard it on an old vinyl recording –I think it was Paul Doktor with Edward Downes conducting the LPO.
 
I have always felt that both the Violin and the Viola Concertos are very romantic works – the former being that of a Latin lover and the latter being somewhat more of a North Country ‘affair’. Certainly the listener does not feel the warmth of the Mediterranean or the coolness of ice-cream in the Viola Concerto. Yet this is a deeply felt work that apparently reflected how the composer felt about a lady called ‘Christabel’.
 
The work is in three movements with the ‘slow’ movement first followed by a scherzo. The piece is completed with a slow-ish movement that echoes the work’s opening themes.
 
York Bowen is one of the very few composers whose music consistently impresses me. I have never heard a piece of his music that I did not like. Naturally, I have my favourites and this includes the Second Symphony and the recently released Violin Concerto. And of course the present work.
 
I first heard the Bowen Viola Concerto at St John’s Smith Square some seven or eight years ago. I could hardly believe that such an accomplished work could have hidden in shadows for over ninety years.  The first performance had been given by the work’s dedicatee, Lionel Tertis at the Queen’s Hall on 26 March 1908.
 
We are lucky to have three recordings of this British treasure available. It is not necessary to compare versions of the Bowen Viola Concerto – it has been done by Rob Barnett in his review of this release.

I have never been a great enthusiast for ‘hunting the influence’ in any given work – although I accept it can be helpful to situate an unknown work in someone’s mind. Rob Barnett alludes to reflections and intimations of Korngold, Tchaikovsky and Bax: apparently there are also references to Massenet, Saint-Saëns and even Richard Strauss in the last movement. Perhaps allusions to Elgar can be detected – but it does not really matter. This is a supremely confident work that ought to have a life of its own. Bowen was often known as the ‘English Rachmaninov’ – but I feel it is infinitely better to take the composer on his own terms. Of course no-one writes or composes in isolation or eschews referential markers. But York Bowen is a composer who rewards exploration. He is very much his own man! The Viola Concerto in C minor is an exceptional and deeply moving work that deserves to be in the repertoire – and let’s be honest, the range of splendid concertos for the viola is a little limited.
To my ears the playing on this recording is excellent – by the soloist, the string quartet and the orchestra. I am not going to say which version of the Bowen Viola Concerto the listener ought to purchase. It is such an important work that it well deserves the three superb recordings that are currently available.
 
Walton is another matter. Most people that know the work will probably have their favourite version – mine is Nigel Kennedy’s. But once again it is important to have more than one version of this masterwork. After the original version with William Primrose and Kennedy‘s offering, Callus is totally convincing.
 
As a compilation of essential English music for viola and orchestra this CD is a vital release. Feel absolutely no hesitation in rushing out and buying it as soon as the shops are open!
 
John France

see also review by Rob Barnett


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