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William WALTON (1902-1983)
Viola Concerto (original version) (1928-29) [24:51]
Edmund RUBBRA (1901-1986)
Meditations on a Byzantine Hymn Op.117 (1962) [11:15]
Viola Concerto in A major Op.75 (1952) [25:05]
Lawrence Power (viola)
BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra/Ilan Volkov
rec. City Hall, Glasgow, 16-17 September 2006 (concertos); Henry Wood Hall, London, 27 September 2006 (Meditations)
HYPERION CDA67587 [61:13] 

At first glance, Walton and Rubbra appear unlikely bedfellows; the former, a sophisticate with a penchant for Elgar and Puccini - the latter, a modern Bruckner rooted in the spirituality of Tudor church music. Nonetheless, a closer look reveals two men with working class backgrounds and sufficient character to withstand the passing whims of changing musical fashion. 

Moreover, as this fine Hyperion disc demonstrates, Rubbra’s Viola Concerto of 1952 has several points in common with Walton’s masterpiece - composed twenty-three years earlier. It uses a similar formal scheme, two deeply felt movements framing a sprightly scherzo, is again the product of inner emotional turmoil, and likewise exploits the motif of a rising/falling minor third - although without Walton’s major/minor ambivalence. Both works display an acute understanding of the viola’s husky timbre. Each is in the key of A minor. 

Leo Black’s excellent accompanying notes refer to Rubbra’s close friendship with Gerald Finzi. This is appropriate for Rubbra’s concerto has several telling moments of Finzian serenity. Its finale, a set of of ‘meditations’, attains a profound inner peace redolent of “thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears”. It is a scandal that such music remains so rarely heard. 

The Walton concerto has been recorded several times. I have a special fondness for Paul Doktor’s account recorded in the 1960s for CBS and the Primrose and Riddle interpretations with Walton at the helm have achieved classic status. This Power/Volkov performance enterprisingly uses the original 1928/29 version of the score and is the first modern recording to do so. 

It is always fascinating to hear a composer’s initial thoughts, although one must remember that Walton, a perfectionist, remained a fine reviser of his music. One need only compare the original version of ‘Scapino’ as heard in the vintage Stock/Chicago SO recording with the more compact later incarnation to appreciate this ability. The 1962 revision of the concerto lightens the scoring and adroitly introduces a harp; it remains hauntingly beautiful. Crucially, the earlier edition betrays at times a rawness that comes closer to revealing a little more of the inner man than may be its composer intended.

These fine concertos flank another Rubbra piece, the ‘Meditations on a Byzantine Hymn’ (1962) for solo viola, which acts as a bridge from Walton’s world to Rubbra’s. 

Lawrence Power’s performance of the solo part in these pieces is quite exceptional. Here is pinpoint intonation; an eloquence that transcends criticism and a flair for narrative that grips the listener from first note to last. In this, he is aided admirably by the conductor Ilan Volkov who grasps not only Walton’s dynamism but also is intuitively at one with the more elusive Rubbra idiom. The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra rises to the occasion with scintillating playing.

For the listener requiring a modern recording of the Walton, this is an instant recommendation although Helen Callus’s brilliant interpretation of the 1962 revision for ASV should not be overlooked. However, this spaciously recorded Hyperion disc is rendered indispensable by its inclusion of the Rubbra concerto.

Nicholas Scott

see also Review by Dominy Clements
RECORDING OF THE MONTH in June

 

 

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