William WALTON (1902-1983)
Violin Concerto (1939) [30:36]
Henry V (1944): Passacaglia: Death of Falstaff [3:08]; Touch Her Soft Lips and Part [1:28]
Samuel BARBER (1910-1981)
Violin Concerto, Op. 14 (1940) [21:56]
Adagio for Strings (1938) [8:52]
Thomas Bowes (violin)
Malmö Opera Orchestra/Joseph Swensen
rec. 8-12 March 1910, Malmö Opera and Music Theatre, Sweden
English violinist Thomas Bowes has been a member of the London Philharmonic Orchestra and the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, and was the first leader of the Maggini Quartet. Since the early 1990s he has forged a solo career. This is his concerto recording debut.
Walton’s glorious Violin Concerto was composed during a stay near Amalfi, and has about it a quite unmistakeable Mediterranean atmosphere whilst remaining resolutely English. Kyung Wha Chung’s performance with Previn was issued on Decca in the 1970s, and though I’ve heard many performances since then, none has quite measured up to it. The word often applied to the tone she adopts in the opening melody was “smokey”, and overall it is a performance that, whilst not neglecting the dramatic elements of the work, is marvellously adept at evoking the warmth and languor that are so essential to it. This performance from Thomas Bowes is stronger on drama than on languor, a characteristic already apparent in the opening melody – emphatically a smoke-free zone – where the soloist is keen to push on at the ends of phrases. The same quality can be noted at around 3’20”, where most other violinists pull back to luxuriate, and indeed there are many examples throughout the performance. The waltz-like passage in the second movement is not very seductive, and although the first horn acquits himself very well, the Trio section rather lacks charm. The second subject of the finale is a crucial moment. The composer’s markings indicate that he wants the music to be kept moving, but he adds the word “flessible” – I can think of no other score in which I have seen this word. I wish Bowes had been more flessible here, as the music really cries out for it, and even in the accompanied cadenza one wants him to relax, to be freer with pulse and rhythm. The orchestra plays well, but some of the tutti passages feel rather literal, and though the opening of the finale is of a piece with the rest of the reading, it really isn’t pianissimo. The recording is very fine, but some will find the soloist a little close, his figuration, admittedly marked forte, covering the pianissimo woodwinds march theme in a way I feel the composer could not have intended.
Barber’s Violin Concerto is also a most beautiful work, but a strange one indeed. The first two movements are highly lyrical, a constant stream of melody in each case, but the work closes with a whirlwind finale, less than half the length of either of the other two movements and seemingly part of another work altogether. I was discouraged to note the same shortage of rhythmic freedom in Bowes’ playing of the gorgeous opening melody, but things improved thereafter and I found this performance much more appealing and satisfying than that of the Walton. There is a delicious freshness about the way the wind-led second theme is presented, and the dramatic central section is superbly executed by both soloist and orchestra. The slow movement’s opening melody is beautifully taken here by the principal oboe, and Bowes saves one of his finest moments for the return of this theme at around 4’40”, presented here with gloriously rich tone and superb poise. The finale is very convincing, though the fiendish passagework sounds cleaner – perhaps inevitably – from both Joshua Bell (Decca) and Gil Shaham (DG).
The disc is filled out with music for strings. The two short pieces from Walton’s music for the film Henry V are nicely done, especially the sombre Passacaglia. Barber’s Adagio seems an unimaginative choice, but given, as here, at a flowing tempo, it comes over as cooler and less overwrought than it often can, and none the worse for that in my view.
William Hedley
A fine Barber, but the Walton seems less convincing overall