Walton: Viola Concerto, Partita for Orchestra, Sonata for String Orchestra - Ehnes, Gardner
Chandos CHSA 5210
Classical - Orchestral
Walton: Viola Concerto, Partita for Orchestra, Sonata for String Orchestra
James Ehnes (viola)
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Edward Gardner (conductor)
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Review by Graham Williams - April 3, 2018
The third release in Edward Gardner's excellent Walton survey for Chandos features three of the composer's less frequently performed works, beginning with his Viola Concerto. This was composed in 1928/29, at the suggestion of Sir Thomas Beecham, and was originally intended for the eminent viola player Lionel Tertis who initially rejected it. Walton revised the concerto in 1936 and again in 1961 in which the composer rescored the work for a smaller orchestra – double instead of triple woodwind, the omission of one trumpet and tuba but adding a harp – and it is this final version that is given here with the incomparable James Ehnes as soloist. Ehnes has already recorded Walton's Violin Concerto for another label (unfortunately not on SACD), but on this new release he demonstrates that he is equally adept on his second instrument.
The Viola Concerto is essentially a romantic work full of lyrical melancholy, ideally suited to the viola's uniquely introspective timbre, though the central scherzo displays Walton's characteristic rhythmic pungency. Ehnes, performing on a viola made c. 1740 by Carlo Bergonzi, gives a superbly poised and typically nuanced account of the work. The opening 'Andante comodo' allows appreciation of the silken sounds he draws from his instrument while the movement that follows marked 'Vivo, e molto preciso' demonstrates his unforced virtuosity to the full. The accompaniment from Gardner and the BBC SO is always alert while the balance between soloist and orchestra is very natural with no undue spotlighting of the solo viola. I can't imagine Ehnes's recording of this concerto being equalled let alone surpassed in the foreseeable future.
In 1970 the conductor Neville Marriner tried unsuccessfully to persuade Walton to write a brand new work for his Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, but Marriner was able to persuade the composer that his String Quartet of 1945-47 might be transcribed for string orchestra. With the assistance of Walton's colleague and friend Malcolm Arnold the work was undertaken resulting in the 'Sonata for String Orchestra' heard here.
The work is much more than a mere transcription of the Quartet. Walton made a number of changes to the original 1st movement and, by alloting many passages to solo instruments, he was able to provide intriguing contrasts in each of the four movements in addition to keeping textures clear. Aided by the wide-ranging Chandos recording, the interchange between the passages for solo quartet and the full string ensemble are startlingly etched, while the richness and athleticism of the BBC SO string section is beyond reproach.
Walton's 'Partita for Orchestra', the final work on this SACD was the result a commission from George Szell in 1955 to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Cleveland Orchestra of which he was the musical director. Amazingly Szell's 1959 recording of this brilliant work was an early release on single layer SACD and is still in the catalogue Mahler: Symphony No. 10 (Adagio) / Stravinsky: Firebird / Walton: Partita - Szell .
The work has three short movements whose titles are self explanatory. The two vigorous outer movements (Toccata Brioso and Giga Burlesca) use the full orchestra and require the maximem virtuosity from the players, while contrast of mood and pace are provided by the central 'Pastorale Siciliana' that opens with a duet between solo viola and solo oboe. To quote from the composer's typically laconic programme notes for the first performance: “My Partita poses no problems, has no ulterior motive or meaning behind it and makes no attempt to ponder the imponderables”.
Gardner and the BBC Symphony rise to the challenges of this engaging piece with terrific incisive playing in which the outer movements fairly crackle with kinetic thrust, while the middle movement moves with an easy grace thanks to the conductor's flowing tempo. The crisp Chandos recording captures every detail of Walton's spicy orchestration making this version in every way a worthy successor to Szell's classic recording of the piece.
In addition to the excellent engineering of Ralph Couzens, all three works benefit from the warm acoustic of the Watford Colosseum where they were recorded (17 and 18 June 2017) and I hope we will not have to wait too long for further Walton releases on SACD from this team – Belshazzar's Feast and the two Coronation marches immediately spring to mind.
Highly recommended to all Walton admirers.
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