WALTON: Concerto for Viola and Orchestra; Sonata for String Orchestra; Partita for Orchestra – James Ehnes, viola/ BBC Symphony Orchestra/ Edward Gardner – Chandos 

by | Apr 30, 2018 | Classical CD Reviews

James Ehnes and Edward Gardner collaborate in virtuosic, colorful scores from William Walton.

WALTON: Concerto for Viola and Orchestra; Sonata for String Orchestra; Partita for Orchestra – James Ehnes, viola/ BBC Symphony Orchestra/ Edward Gardner – Chandos CHSA 5210, 65:50 (4/6/18)  [Distr. by Naxos] ****: 

William Walton (1902-1983) composed his Viola Concerto in A minor in 1929, originally for the instrumentalist Lionel Tertis, at the suggestion of conductor Sir Thomas Beecham. Though Tertis declined the premiere, the work had its debut with Paul Hindemith and the composer at London Promenade concert. The structure of the work follows the design of Prokofiev’s D Major Violin Concerto, with its moderately paced opening movement, followed by an E minor Scherzo, and concluding with a fast-paced ending that quotes from the first movement.  The leisurely, walking pace of the first movement, Andante comodo, soon reveals the viola’s sumptuous power of expression in double stops, accompanied by minor and major thirds.  The grand melody line comes to us courtesy of Ehnes’ 1740 Bergonzi viola. Syncopations follow that direct us to a faster tempo and its central, developmental section, the whole marked inquietamente (“restless”) that only through jaunty, circuitous routes will finally settle comfortably on E. The movement ends in relative shadow, the viola’s moving in falling thirds.

Walton utilizes the procedure of two rising fourths to proceed, in 2/4, with his Vivo, e molto preciso second movement. The brass, muted, introduces a new, syncopated theme. We can hear echoes of Walton’s own Portsmouth Point Overture in the central trio section marked Risoluto. There are some delicious interchanges as the opening section enjoys a concentrated reprise, the opening theme’s having accelerated into a faster tempo. The true lushness of the viola’s voice saturates the last movement, Allegro moderato – Meno mosso. In A Major, this movement proves the longest and emotionally most exalted of the three movements. Now the interval Walton exploits is the rising fifth, the bassoon’s contributing its color to the violin over a pizzicato bass line. The woodwinds move in counterpoint to a transition in triplet rhythm; suddenly, the rocking theme of movement one has given rise to a second subject here, but in the minor mode. After the viola contributes a lush counter-melody, Walton wants his coda to resonate in fugal harmony, superimposing the first theme in long notes against the cantabile melody of the development.  Despite a long-held E in the bass, Walton exploits that “inquietude” he introduced earlier, moving to A, but ambiguously in major and minor. Ehnes has meandered seamlessly through tunes from both outer movements, and the whole effect remains intelligent and sumptuous at once, a well-wrought urn. The resonance of the BBC (rec. 17 June 2017), through the work of Recording Producer Brian Pidgeon, has been exemplary.

In March 1972 Sir Neville Marriner managed to convince Walton to transcribe his 1947 String Quartet in A minor, as Walton would have the assistance of Malcolm Arnold to render a Sonata for String Orchestra. Malcolm Arnold’s contribution pertains mostly to the last movement, and even here the composer supervised. It is the first movement that receives the most alteration, which includes new modulations, eliding or adding some passages, and offering new material. Walton has taken a page from Vaughan Williams, adjusting his textures to create a kind of antiphon, so the quartet sonority of first-desk instruments plays against a ripieno or large force.  The use of or lack of mutes adds to the dynamic of the music. Typically, the first movement offers lyrical melodies, some rhythmic vitality in 5/4, and a good deal of polyphony.

The jabbing, even buzzing, Presto (Scherzo) in 3/8 thrusts its way forward, repeats—minus a few bars—and proceeds to a middle section marked by repeated notes, then trills and tremolo figures. Richly intoned bass chords contribute to the tension. The writing becomes somewhat more expansive near the end, the coda’s wandering into 9/8 and 6/8, almost rhapsodic in its passing lyricism. The third movement, an extended Lento in F Major, exploits the rich sound of the viola section, followed by a singing variation in the first violins. The second violins extend the moment along with the violas, while cellos and bass play pizzicato.  Meditative and bucolic, this music provides the heart—including a degree of yearning—of the original Quartet.  The finale, Allegro molto, sets a fast rondo in motion, with short, thrusting phrases built on the same rising fourths we hear in the Viola Concerto.  The music becomes episodic, the second of which in ¾ speeds up the tempo to provide a contrast for an emergent folk idea, a final moment of tender melody before the wild energy intensifies to the resounding coda.

The Partita for Orchestra (1957) results from a commission for the Cleveland Orchestra’s 40th anniversary, the work to be led in January 1958 by George Szell. Walton had Bach’s keyboard partitas in mind, though he abbreviated the number of movements to three. The opening Toccata blasts out in 3/2, brassy and decisive, mixing its polyrhythm with 2/2 and 4/2 so that three main tunes evolve. The dazzling urgency derives from the constant welter of athletic gestures, often highlighting the high winds and cymbals. The middle movement offers a Pastorale (Siciliana) in lilting 6/8 and 9/8 meters.  A solo oboe and viola duet opens the movement, though in different keys, in the manner of the Flos Campi of Vaughan Williams. Set as an etude for first-desk players, the music canters in askew phrases, soon heard in layered fashion. The Piu animato section introduces more acerbic harmony, shades of Bartok. The flute adds to the texture, as do violin and harp. Both whimsical and lyrical, the music builds a virtuosic haze that has a quality of Ravel about it. Haste and bustle open the last movement Gigue, what Walton calls a Burlesque that features horn and trumpet. A gaudy virtuosity defines this splashy music, what Walton conceived to be “a rousing and diverting finish to the work.” The BBC under Gardner has done full justice to the model established by Szell and his select Clevelanders.

–Gary Lemco


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