Walton: Viola Concerto (SACD)

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James Ehnes, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Edward Gardner

In this third volume of Edward Gardner’s Walton series with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, James Ehnes leaves his violin to tackle the taxing soloist role in the Viola Concerto.

In a recent Strad interview, Ehnes confesses: ‘This is a piece I have loved since I was a teenager, so it is wonderful that the opportunity has come my way to record it... With Walton’s Viola Concerto, none of the writing is impossible but a lot of it is close. And in a way that is exactly where you want it to be: on the edge of technical limitations. There’s a tremendous amount of excitement in that.’

This album in surround sound also features two much later works: the 1957 Partita for Orchestra and the Sonata for String Orchestra, adapted in 1971 from the String Quartet in A minor of 1945 – 47. There is a striking contrast between the uncomfortable modernism of the up-and-coming young composer’s Viola Concerto and the relaxed brilliance of the mature Partita. But the Sonata shows Walton late in his life re-engaging as an arranger with his earlier manner, and so with the characteristic vein of restless unease that runs through most of his output.

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"[Ehnes] eloquently masters the bittersweet wistfulness of the outer movements and the dazzling pyrotechnics we hear here...Gardner’s BBC Symphony Orchestra forces play [the Partita] as the showpiece it is, revelling in its unfashionable Italianate lyricism and witty high jinks."

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Sir William Walton (1902 - 1983)

Walton: Viola Concerto (1961 Version)

Walton: Sonata for String Orchestra

Walton: Partita for Orchestra

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Gardner's third Walton disc proves yet another triumph



This is the third release is a spectacularly recorded series of the music of William Walton featuring the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Edward Gardner. The previous issues covered the two symphonies and Walton's concertos for violin and cello. Here we have his earliest string concerto, the Viola Concerto, plus two substantial orchestral works.

The Viola Concerto was premiered in 1929, with Paul Hindemith as soloist, and it set the template for the later and (nowadays) more popular Violin Concerto. The Canadian James Ehnes forsakes his violin for viola, following in the footsteps of other violinists who recorded the work: Yehudi Menhuin, Nigel Kennedy and Maxim Vengerov. It is a gutsy performance, with Gardner encouraging the orchestra to attack Walton's jazzy syncopations, but is not without moments of lyrical beauty.

The Sonata for Strings is a 1971 reworking for string orchestra of Walton's String Quartet in A Minor of 1945-46. Neville Marriner had requested a new piece for his Academy of St. Martin in the Fields chamber orchestra, but the slow and painstaking composer preferred to rearrange his existing quartet, making so many changes that the Sonata for Strings virtually became a new piece. The Partita of 1957 is a suite of dances in typically Waltonian orchestral dress, written for George Szell's Cleveland Orchestra. In these two works, Gardner is up against recordings by the original commissioning musicians. His BBC band is more polished than Szell's exciting, virtuoso Clevelanders: sonically their Sony recording is showing its age. Marriner's version of the Sonata still sounds great, with the music suiting the Academy's qualities of warmth and full tone. Gardner is typically more lean and detailed than Marriner, pointing up spiky rhythms and clear textures. The Chandos sound is absolutely sensational (even in plain stereo, which is how I listened to it).