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.
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
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.
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
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.
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’.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
see also review by Rob Barnett