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William WALTON (1902-1983)
Viola Concerto (1928-29, rev 1936-37, rev 1961) [23:27]
Sonata for String Orchestra (1971) [26:07]
Partita for String Orchestra (1957) [15:45]
James Ehnes (viola)
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Edward Gardner
rec. 2017, Watford Colosseum, London

This is the third disc by Edward Gardner dedicated to the music of William Walton, each featuring a concerto and all of which have received praise. I certainly enjoyed the other one I have, Symphony No. 1 and the Violin Concerto (CHSA 5136), with Tasmin Little as soloist, and on the evidence of that disc and this present one, I should waste no time in getting the disc containing the Second Symphony and the Cello Concerto (CHSA 5153).

The Viola Concerto is often seen as William Walton’s Cinderella work; despite this, it has garnered a number of very fine recordings by top artists, a number of which I know well: the young Nigel Kennedy (CDC 7 49628 2), William Primrose (8.110316) and Yuri Bashmet (RCA 63292); then there are the ones I own: Lars Anders Tomter (8.553402), Maxim Vengerov (5 57510 2) and Nobuko Imai (CHAN 9106), all of them fine recordings in their own way.

The Viola Concerto was largely composed in 1928-29 on the Amalfi coast, and later revised in 1936-37; the final revision was of the orchestration in 1961. The composition came about after Sir Thomas Beecham that suggested that Walton should compose a concerto for Lionel Tertis, who championed the viola. Tertis however, found the score’s style too unfamiliar and modern and thus rejected it; this led to Paul Hindemith giving the premier on the 3rd October 1929. It is cast in three movements and the first thing you notice about this recording is its tempo, each of the movements being some minutes shorter than other recordings. Vengerov’s recording, which I quite like, is a full seven minutes slower than Ehnes’, most of which is in the final movement. This is certainly the fastest performance, and, if anything, the quicker tempo adds to the drama, especially in the outer movements, make the concerto seem more virtuosic than in other accounts.

I do not usually like string quartets that have been messed around with; the Shostakovich string symphonies are an exception, as is the second work on this disc, the Sonata for String Orchestra, an orchestration of the String Quartet No. 2 in A minor by Malcolm Arnold, made under the supervision of the composer. It received its premiere in 1972 when the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields under Neville Marriner performed it in Perth. The following year, the composer made a few minor revisions to Arnold’s original orchestration before it was published. I like this work and have it on another Chandos disc conducted by Jan Lathem-Kognig; it is featured on the same disc as the Viola Concerto. Both performances have a lot to say; the earlier recording is very fine and slower than this new performance, which gives the work a little added zip and excitement, compared to the other disc - but if truth be told, I would not be without either.

The final work on the disc is the Partita for Orchestra which was dedicated to and premiered by the Cleveland Orchestra and George Szell in1958. The first recording, however, was made by the composer himself with the Philharmonia Orchestra the following year, and whilst some might find Edward Gardner’s performance a little swift, it is the closest in tempo to Walton’s own, which is slower than Szell’s and best succeeds in bringing out the sense of fun of the final movement Giga Burlesca. Allegro gioviale.

This is an excellent recording, in which James Ehnes and the BBC Symphony are on wonderful form. Yes, it might be a little too quick for some, especially in the concerto, but it is a performance to savour. The recorded sound and the booklet notes are up to the usual high Chandos standard, making this a most desirable disc, one for all fans of the music of Walton and English music in general.

Stuart Sillitoe


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