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British Music For Viola And Orchestra
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
Suite for Viola and Orchestra (1934) [7.55]
Herbert HOWELLS (1892-1983)
Elegy for viola, string quartet and string orchestra (1917) [10.33]
William WALTON (1902-1983)
Viola Concerto in A minor (1929, rev 1961) [27.27]
York BOWEN (1884-1961)
Viola Concerto in C minor, Op.25 (1907) [32.00]
Helen Callus (viola)
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra/Marc Taddei
rec. 2005, Michael Fowler Centre Auditorium, Wellington, New Zealand
NAXOS 8.573876 [78.15]

It is good to see this collection, first released on ASV (CDDCA1181 - review), back in the catalogue. It is both lovingly played and full of lovely music. There are rival recordings for the music, but there is nothing here that remotely disappoints and it is good to have so many works in this collectible form. Thanks to the encouragement of Lionel Tertis and others, there is a rich seam of British music for viola, an instrument which, despite its occasional joke status, has such warm beauty.

The opening work, Vaughan Williams’ Suite, was written for Tertis, and while less-known than Flos Campi, represents the composer at his most gentle and tuneful. Notice however – a fact tucked away in the notes, but not mentioned on the outside of the CD or tracklisting - this is an extract: the first group of three movements from the eight-movement original. There are few recorded performances of the whole suite, but there is an excellent recording, a little more forthright in tone, and in the first two movements, rather more terse, by Roger Chase, with the BBC Concert Orchestra conducted by Stephen Bell, from 2012 (Dutton Epoch CDLX 7295), coupled with works by Bax, Theodore Holland and Richard Harvey. But in this poetic performance of the first three movements, it will give great pleasure. As a piece, in part or whole, it deserves to be much better known.

Perhaps the gem of the collection is Howells’ glorious Elegy for viola, string quartet and string orchestra. Since I heard this one movement piece on Richard Hickox’ 1993 disc of Howells’ Music for Strings, first issued in 1993 and now available on CHAN 10780X, I have loved its tender beauty. Conceived as an elegy for a colleague killed in the Great War, its mood is one of restrained grief, all the more moving for that noble restraint. It should be better known as one of the great pieces of British music for strings.

The better-known Walton Concerto receives a fine and secure performance, the recording providing the necessary detail (crucial in Walton). Initially rejected by Tertis, this work became part of his repertoire and it rightly has more than a toe-hold on the concert platform. There is much to be enjoyed here, though the recording does not displace the marginally more urgent Lars Anders Tomter as my first choice (Naxos 8.553402, accompanied by Paul Daniel and the English Northern Philharmonia, coupled with the Second Symphony).

York Bowen’s Viola Concerto from 1907 will also give much delight. In this recording Helen Callus provides her own cadenzas for the final movement. The consequence is an Allegro scherzando markedly briefer than on rival recordings at 8:18 as against 12:36 for Doris Lederer on Centaur (CRC 2786) or 12:13 for Lawrence Power on Hyperion (CDA67546). Nevertheless her cadenzas, using themes from the other two movements, work well and work with the sense of the music as a whole. This is a substantial work which deserves more performances following recent – and overdue – revival of interest in York Bowen, at least on disc, if not yet sufficiently in concert programmes.

Perhaps the best description of performances overall would be ‘poetic’ but that does not disguise toughness as required.

Michael Wilkinson


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