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William WALTON (1902-1983)
Concerto for Viola and Orchestra (1928/9, revised 1936/7 and 1961) [23:27]
Sonata for String Orchestra (1971) [26:07]
Partita for Orchestra (1957) [15:45]
James Ehnes (viola), BBC Symphony Orchestra/Edward Gardner
rec. 2017, Watford Colosseum

Walton’s Viola Concerto propelled the composer from the status of enfant terrible to that of most prominent British composer of his generation. The work demonstrated a lyricism and and energy not evident before, although there were glimmers in the Sinfonia Concertante of 1924.

The Viola Concerto was revised slightly in 1936-7 and much more extensively in 1961 and the version we hear today is less hard-edged than the original, and this is perhaps for the better. The concerto is in three movements, two moderate-paced ones surrounding a scherzo, with the third as long as the first two combined. The opening Andante is brooding, with an introspective first theme and a more lyrical second. The first theme dominates the movement and the second adds a restless quality. The second movement is a scherzo a little reminiscent of Portsmouth Point but with the energy more focused and Gardner brings this out strongly, more so than some other conductors.

The basic material for the concerto’s last movement consists of a jaunty first theme and a wistful second. The development is masterly but even better is the recapitulation, where the two themes are combined with material from the preceding movements in a fugal style. The work ends with a grandiloquent coda in which the violist meditates on the thematic material, as in the Elgar Violin Concerto, before a final reminiscence of the opening theme.

Almost thirty years separate the Viola Concerto from the Partita for Orchestra. The Partita was part of a commission from George Szell to 5 American and 5 European composers to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of the Cleveland Orchestra in 1957. Szell had long been a supporter of Walton and would go on to record not only the Partita but also the Symphony No. 2 and the Variations on a Theme of Hindemith. The Partita appears at first to be one of the composer’s light-hearted works, as he himself indicated in his program note, but is not devoid of seriousness and is a wonderful workout for a virtuoso orchestra.

The Prelude, a Toccata, nods slightly to Bach, while the second and third movements are more overtly in dance rhythms. The Toccata contains three themes, the first brisk, the second with an undercurrent of restlessness, and the third possessing a lot of charm. The second movement, a Pastorale, begins with a beautiful theme for violin and oboe and traverses several other themes, all of which contain an element of unease. With the final Gigue we are in safer waters and Walton provides the brilliant finale that Szell was no doubt counting on.

Walton had a penchant for orchestrating or adding an orchestral accompaniment to works originally in other media, e.g. Music for Children and Anon in Love. The Sonata for Strings came about as a request from Neville Marriner for a work the Academy of Saint Martin in the Fields could take on tour. Walton demurred but a compromise was reached whereby the composer would arrange his 1947 String Quartet for string orchestra. Walton then asked his close friend Malcolm Arnold to make the arrangement under his supervision. Arnold accepted, knowing full well what would happen. When he arrived at Walton’s home on the Isle of Ischia to discuss the arrangement he found that Walton had already done much of the arrangement himself and he had little to add.

Walton made some major changes to the String Quartet when arranging it for the larger ensemble, especially in the first movement. There is a large use of solo instruments as well as placing of a solo quartet against the larger ensemble as in Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro. The opening theme, as newly arranged, seems more severe than in the quartet version, almost as if the 70-year-old composer was looking back on his 1947 material. The angular second theme retains more of the original’s effect, but with the return of the opening material, so does the severity, as the composer incorporates various solo instruments against the larger body of strings before the rather solemn conclusion. The scherzo movement accrues much more to its original form but the larger body of strings adds a certain urgency not before evident.

The lento of the quartet is one of Walton’s most arresting slow movements and he changes little in the arrangement, although the use of solo violin and viola over pizzicati in the larger ensemble is very effective. Gardner emphasizes the melancholy in this section and brings a Mahlerian wistfulness to the central segment. In the last movement Walton (or perhaps Arnold) makes the music sound more like the 1970 Walton than the 1947 and the piece ends with a far-away effect, which Gardner renders beautifully.

James Ehnes is best-known as violinist but here joins Yehudi Menuhin, Nigel Kennedy, and others in essaying the Viola Concerto. He does not have a big sound but does have the requisite virtuosity and precision, as well as emotional expression, to turn in a very convincing performance. Edward Gardner accompanies him well, although he is a little lacklustre in the first movement of the concerto.

In the Partita Gardner has a tendency to quicken the tempo more than might be necessary but this does not detract much from his performance and he is especially effective in the last movement. Gardner really comes into his own in the Sonata. The performance is exciting right from the beginning and he makes a great effort to demonstrate how the arrangement of the quartet produces new shades and nuances not present in the original quartet. His handling of the last two movements demonstrates perfect control of the ensemble and a real feeling for the emotional content. At present there are recordings available by Marriner and Richard Hickox in boxed sets and by Jan Latham-Koenig in the Chandos Walton Series. None of these are recent recordings but Gardner’s splendid reading would be my recommendation even if recording quality was not an issue.

With the Partita we have Walton’s own recording [review] and a fine 2017 version by Martyn Brabbins [review ~ review]. In between there are recordings from the 1990’s by Paul Daniel and Bryden Thomson, the latter in the Chandos Walton Series. For me, the Thomson version is the one to have in one’s library as he ably navigates between the virtuoso and more restrained elements of this work.

James Ehnes’ performance in the Viola Concerto has almost two dozen competitors at present, but his version is one of the most affecting for some time. It should also be pointed out that the sound on this disc is superlative, ably reproducing the fine playing of the BBC Symphony Orchestra. These factors, combined with Edward Gardner’s performance of the Sonata, make this disc a strong contender for library status.
William Kreindler
Previous review: Stuart Sillitoe

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