William WALTON (1902 - 1983)
Concerto for Violin and Orchestra (1938) [30:36]
Two Pieces for Strings from Henry V (1944) [4:36]
Samuel BARBER (1910 - 1981)
Concerto for Violin and Orchestra Op.14 (1939-40) [21:56]
Adagio for Strings Op.11 (1938) [8:52]
Thomas Bowes (violin)
Malmö Opera Orchestra/Joseph Swensen
rec. Malmö Opera and Music Theatre, Sweden, 8-12 March 2010
SIGNUM SIGCD238 [66:02]
This is another of those discs that I find hard to review. In its own right this captures fine idiomatic and technically secure performances in good if not great sound. Violinist Thomas Bowes is not a name known widely on the international circuit but on the evidence of this disc his playing is the match of many more celebrated players - indeed in the Walton he is much more secure than one of my favourite players Aaron Rosand. But the rub is, does this disc merit purchasing before any of the other versions of either or both concertos? By that highest of all criteria I would have to say no. But for the moment I would rather dwell on the positives. Conductor Joseph Swensen is a fine violinist in his own right and from the liner-note it is clear that he and Bowes are friends as well as musical colleagues. This ensures that there is a real mutual rapport and understanding between fiddle and stick that means the many ensemble/sectional minefields in the Walton in particular are negotiated with ease. Likewise the Malmö Opera Orchestra - although perhaps a little light in numbers in the strings - are agile and alert accompanists. Add fine production and engineering from Tony Harrison and Mike Hatch and the omens are good.
The Walton Violin Concerto is one of this great composer’s finest works. His detractors will tell you that apart from a burst of extraordinary creative energy in the decade or so from the debut of Façade in 1922 his career was a long slow decline into a late romantic nostalgia. They might even go further and cite this concerto as the first work to exhibit this ‘malaise’. I would argue quite differently - and avoiding the epithet ‘bitter-sweet’ which dogs descriptions of Walton’s music - that in his mature works he found a balance between the nervous energy of the earlier works and the vein of lyricism that is central to all of Walton’s best work. If one did want to characterize it it should be as the first of his ‘Mediterranean’ works written mainly as it was at Ravello near Amalfi. Add waspish humour and a capricious sexiness and it can be seen that there is a complex and elusive personality to this music that is hard for both performers and listeners to comprehend. Given that it was commissioned by Jascha Heifetz adds a layer of technical complexity too that daunts all but the finest and bravest players. My main observation with Bowes’ performance is that he is very strong on the technical aspect and indeed quite forceful throughout but along the way loses the nonchalant slyness the music really needs. The very opening is the key to the success of any performance; the violin part is marked sognando which I would interpret as dreaming rather than dreamily. Following the score I had forgotten just the level of detail that Walton has applied to the solo line with changes to dynamics and phrasing in almost every bar. To be honest Bowes rather generalizes these which as I say underplays the skittish quality. Coming back to this concerto I was reminded of just what a fine work it is so I particularly enjoyed digging out other older versions. As mentioned before Aaron Rosand rather disappointed sounding simply too effortful although James Judd and his Florida orchestra have full measure of Walton’s orchestral writing. Nigel Kennedy on EMI with Previn and the RPO are very good - the bigger orchestra giving the work an opulence that is not an option here and Kennedy reminding one what a fine player he is technically and musically. I’m not sure any conductor quite finds the balance between the syncopating rhythms and the lyrical in Walton as well as Previn. Kyung Wha Chung is also accompanied by Previn this time with the LSO on Decca but doesn’t quite win me over in the charm stakes. Ida Haendel with Berglund and his Bournemouth orchestra are simply magnificent right down to a glorious EMI (again) analogue recording. Lydia Mordkovich with Jan Latham-Koenig as part of the Chandos Walton edition is good and interestingly coupled but lacking the multi-faceted nature of the music. I like rather more the bargain Naxos version from Dong-Suk Kang coupled with the Cello Concerto. This is a very sensible coupling and as with much of that series of discs from Naxos benefits from Paul Daniels’ conducting which shows a real feel for the Waltonian idiom. Menuhin with Walton again on EMI has historical value but cannot compete on a purely technical level. But that leaves me with one other recording which sadly deals the knock-out blow for me and the feisty Bowes. It is the 2006 version from James Ehnes and Bramwell Tovey on Onyx. Good though Bowes is Ehnes is exceptional, his ability to sail through passages of ferocious difficulty is little short of staggering. None of the above players - Haendel is pretty remarkable though - on a technical level alone play this piece as accurately as Ehnes. But then he transcends mere accuracy and brings to the music a flippancy and easy wit that is just so very right. And the killer blow for Bowes is that Ehnes couples this with the same Barber concerto and throws in a wonderful Korngold Concerto for good measure. Lastly the Onyx engineering gives all the players a more natural perspective and Tovey’s Vancouver orchestra is every bit the match of the Swedish team here.
In many ways the Barber is a simpler more linear and less quixotic work - although written a couple of years after the Walton it is more overtly backward looking emotionally. Again it has received many fine performances but Bowes need fear few of them. Overall - for all of the impressive technical address of the Walton - I prefer Bowes in the Barber. Curiously the orchestra are slightly less compelling here. This is due again to the number of players so the weight of string tone is generated more by close miking than force of numbers. If forced to choose I would turn to Gil Shaham’s glorious account on DG which also coupled the Korngold. Interestingly I saw Shaham play the Walton in London last year and he is an ideal exponent of that work which I do not think he has recorded.
The bringing together of these two like-minded concertos makes for a very satisfying disc and no-one buying this disc alone would be anything but pleased with their purchase. The couplings slightly annoy me because they smack too readily of ‘session fillers’- easy for the orchestra to slap down in the last few minutes of available time. To be fair the performances of these string works are perfectly good but not the reason anyone will be buying the disc. And compared to Ehnes’ Korngold there is no competition on interest grounds even before one makes qualitative judgments. Liner notes in English only are provided by Bowes and Adam Chambers. Passing mention is made of use of David Lloyd-Jones’ ‘new edition’ of the Walton concerto without mentioning what this actually means for the listener which I find a little frustrating. I feel rather guilty guiding potential buyers away from a disc of so many virtues but it is the musical equivalent of coming second to Usain Bolt in the 100 metres final - no disgrace but not the winner either.
No disgrace but not the winner either.