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Charlotte de Rothschild (soprano);

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Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

 

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Helen Callus (viola)
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]

 

Alternative recordings of the Bowen Concerto
Lawrence Power
Doris Lederer

As a collection of early twentieth century British music for viola and orchestra this disc is pretty much unbeatable. The earliest piece is the Bowen, the latest the Walton, here heard in its usual 1962 revised orchestration.

We are not getting the whole eight movement RVW suite, just group 1 of the three groups of movements that make up the complete sequence. You would not know this from the CD cover. It is regrettable that this is not mentioned although it is clear enough on the reverse of the case.

Callus gives a warmly bathed performance of the three pieces in Group 1 adopting an almost Delian leisurely pace. The ever winding Prelude is one of the work's most memorable movements. The following Carol which shows the same predilection for radiant oozing heat is low key stuff. The guttural Christmas Dance is classic troubadour-style RVW. One can see it fitting very neatly into Sir John in Love or The Tudor Portraits.

From the pealing outpouring of anguish and love at the apex of Howells' Elegy to the echoing cathedral casements of Vaughan Williams’ Tallis Fantasia is not a great distance. There are other resonances in the Howells: notably pre-echoes of Barber's Adagio and any of the string orchestra pieces by Gerald Finzi. The Elegy is a concisely grieving lament on the death of fellow RCM student Francis Purcell Warren, known as ‘Bunny’. Warren was killed in action in 1917. The work was premiered at the RAH on 17 December 1917 as a memorial concert for those killed in the battle of Mons. Note the layout for viola solo, string quartet and string orchestra; apart from the single viola this is the same specification as for the Tallis Fantasia. I liked Callus's and Taddei's understated way with the lament after the grand statement at 7:49

For all that it was written ten years earlier the first movement of the Walton Viola Concerto draws on the sweetly keening Mediterranean pulse of the Violin Concerto. While there is not quite the whip and snap from Callus and Taddei that we hear in some other performances this is nicely rounded playing - very much of a piece with the flanking movements. The finale is enhanced by some flatteringly attentive pawky humour from soloists and wind principals as well as some really touching and tender intimate playing at 1:50.

The Bowen arrives timely in the same month as the Dutton series vol. 1 (violin concerto and piano concerto no. 1) covering all the Bowen concertos. It has the advantage of Helen Callus's own sentimental cadenza rather than the one that appears in the score. This performance asserts the score as a boisterous work with achieved aspirations to vie with the big violin concertos. That said it also leans on the swooningly rhapsodic with a touch of gauche chinoiserie in the finale. 

The Bowen was written for Tertis as was the RVW and the Walton although the latter was initially rejected by Tertis.

Wonderful to have the Bowen Viola Concerto in a third recording (to join the Hyperion, Laurence Power and the Centuuar, Helen Lederer). How much more attractive still would have been the addition of the Gordon Jacob first viola concerto and the concerto by Stanley Bate.

Competition? There isn't any for this coupling. The Bowen concerto is grittily and vibrantly recorded on Centaur and I still favour that version but the coupling on the Hyperion is erudite and enjoyable - the Forsyth viola concerto.

As for the Elegy it is not at all commonplace. There is a competing recording on Chandos conducted by Hickox alongside other Howells items. There's also a Lyrita LP from circa 1978 with other Howells and Butterworth. If I had free choice I would go for the Lyrita but signs are that it will never appear on CD so it's not exactly a practical proposition. There's more character in this Callus version than in the version on Chandos so the preference here goes to ASV. Both Riddle on Chandos and another and excellent version on Crystal are to be preferred in the RVW Suite which in both of those other cases is given complete; not that there was space for the whole suite here. There's plenty of competition for the Walton. I rather like Bashmet's unruly version for RCA-BMG but the Callus version here is very good indeed.

It is good to hear Kent-born Ms Callus. I hope she will continue her practical interest and advocacy in British viola music. Let's not forget her ASV CD of the viola and piano music of Rebecca Clarke, Pamela Harrison and Freda Swain (CD DCA 1130). Now if only she would take an interest in the Arthur Benjamin Viola Concerto (also called Elegy, Waltz and Toccata) which would make the perfect coupling with Benjamin's Violin Concerto and the Romantic Fantasy for viola, violin and orchestra.

This is an admirable anthology of British viola concertos and joins a line of ASV CDs that have valuably and enjoyably widened our experience of British composers' approaches to the viola concerto form.

Rob Barnett

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