‘Power is a latter-day Orpheus, an expression of music’s power to disarm, encourage, soothe and serenade’ (Financial Times)
This recent appraisal of Lawrence Power affirms his status as one of the foremost violists of today. His unremitting musical eloquence and brilliant technical ability have consistently drawn the highest praise for all his recordings and performances.
In our record of the month for June, Lawrence is joined by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and Ilan Volkov. The disc brings together three major pieces by two outstanding and highly individual English composers. Walton’s Viola Concerto is one of his greatest works—haunted throughout by the dreamy opening melody, yet suffused with action and vigour, exhibiting the dazzling, biting brilliance familiar from works such as Façade. The ‘eloquent epilogue’, wrote Walton’s biographer Michael Kennedy, ‘remains the single most beautiful passage in all his music, sensuous yet full of uncertainty’. It is presented here in the original 1928 version in its first modern recording.
Rubbra’s Viola Concerto is also one of its composer’s major works, demonstrating the new musical depths he had sounded with his Sixth Symphony and showing influences of the symphonic traditions of Tchaikovsky and Sibelius. Alongside it we have the first recording of Rubbra’s Meditations on a Byzantine Hymn for solo viola, an extended virtuoso work of religious and solemn aspect.
Lawrence Power’s instinctive understanding and feel for this music together with the great musicianship of his collaborators make this a disc as much to be treasured as their recent recordings of York Bowen and Cecil Forsyth concertos.
This disc brings together three major pieces by two outstanding and highly individual English composers, born only a year apart—Rubbra in 1901, Walton in 1902—but with very different early careers. Walton, from a musical family in Oldham, Lancashire, was an immediate success, finding friends and patrons in high places, notably the sophisticated and universally connected Sitwell family. At nineteen he produced his witty cycle of Edith Sitwell recitations Façade, and was soon heard at the new international festivals of contemporary music held on the Continent in the early 1920s. A very immature string quartet played during the inaugural ISCM Festival (Salzburg, 1923) was followed three years later in Zürich by his much more assured overture Portsmouth Point. Other pre-Second World War works remained popular for decades, notably a striking contribution to the English oratorio tradition in Belshazzar’s Feast, the first symphony, and the viola concerto on this recording.
Rubbra came from a poor Northampton family and was a later developer musically, but his determination and intellectual brilliance won him an excellent education. He studied composition with Holst and achieved a splendid command of the piano (which was for Walton simply the instrument he composed at). Until the outbreak of war he lived from piano accompaniment, incidental music and the reviewing of concerts and new works. Rubbra found his real voice at the age of thirty, composing four symphonies between 1935 and 1941. The honours system eventually recognized Walton with a knighthood, Rubbra with a CBE; Walton had to an admirable degree ‘the common touch’, while Rubbra, though the polar opposite of avant-garde, was more ‘a musician’s musician’ (which used to be a compliment but could suggest to the present-day music industry some shortfall in marketing and self-promotion). While Walton’s work has retained much of its popularity, Rubbra’s wonderful music is now only beginning to make itself felt and heard again.
Walton’s viola concerto (1928–9) was one of his most important early works. Sir Thomas Beecham had suggested that a piece by a rising star would attract the great British violist Lionel Tertis; finding that the score looked too ‘modern’, Tertis sent it back by return of post, though as soon as he heard the concerto he realized his mistake and became devoted to it. At the premiere in the Queen’s Hall, London, on 3 October 1929 the soloist with the Henry Wood Symphony Orchestra and Walton conducting was a leading German musician, Paul Hindemith. In all friendship, Walton had to admit that despite a ‘marvellous technique’ Hindemith’s playing was ‘rough … He just stood up and played’.
Rubbra’s concerto became the first in a triptych (the others are for piano and violin), written at a crucial time, the 1950s. He had just converted to Roman Catholicism and become a lecturer and tutor at Oxford University, but his quarter-century of marriage was entering a stormy period, and powerful underlying emotions affect the concertos in fascinatingly different ways. The leading viola virtuoso William Primrose commissioned works for his instrument from Rubbra, and also from Darius Milhaud and Peter Racine Fricker. Rubbra played his concerto through to his fellow-composer and closest friend Gerald Finzi in late June 1952; the premiere, with the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Sir Malcolm Sargent, was at London’s Royal Festival Hall on 15 April 1953. There was very soon another, seemingly better performance conducted by the ever-young Beecham, the soloist being Frederick Riddle (who was also Walton’s favourite performer for his concerto). In October 1959 Rubbra wrote in a letter: ‘I am off to America on the 31st. Primrose is giving four performances of the Viola Concerto with the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra; and they’ve invited me over—paying all expenses!’
The dreamy opening melody of William Walton’s viola concerto can haunt the memory, and by the end it clearly has, for it is also given the last word, not least with its tiny figure bringing into closest contact the key’s major third and minor third; English music has always relished ‘scrunches’ of that kind. There is a good deal of action in this work, though even when Walton introduces a new idea he retains the moodiness of the opening; only later does the music spring suddenly into vigorous life in a stirring passage heard twice, either side of a curiously balletic one that could suggest moments in Façade. Before the opening mood returns, the soloist is briefly left alone to muse, with just a tremble of low strings in the background. That could be an echo of the ‘accompanied cadenza’ in Elgar’s violin concerto, something Rubbra’s viola concerto shows in a more developed form. Music from the opening rounds out a haunting first movement, with the viola’s filigree against the original melody a lovely touch.
The four-minute scherzo is a master-stroke, brilliant from first note to last. One bright idea in the 1920s, with ‘Back to Bach’ a catchword, was the ‘toccata style’, and the ever-bustling Hindemith was one of the better youngish composers who touched their cap to the idea. He must have relished the fast-moving passages in the middle of the concerto’s first movement, and then this scherzo, though in Walton’s ‘toccata’ manner the vigour is less a matter of bustle than of the sort of joie de vivre that pervades Portsmouth Point.
At the start of the finale the hectic pace has abated to merely brisk and perky. Walton, like Faust, has ‘two souls dwelling in his breast’; one would build to a triumphant climax, the other longs to rediscover his true self as the sensitive young man with a fetching touch of melancholy, whose ‘enfant terrible’ appearance was simply part of his charm. Reconciliation of those two souls gives the finale its quality, for while either is in the ascendant one is firmly convinced that it must gain the upper hand. As a secondary idea the major-/minor-third motif soon reappears transformed, without its bittersweet major third, and the bassoon tune from the opening keeps trying to start things up again. At times we are not far from that ‘last resort of a desperate composer’, a fugue—complete with augmentation of the bassoon theme. There is an orchestral interlude of well-nigh Elgarian grandeur (Walton expressed unbounded admiration for Elgar—‘there is no other English composer to touch him’—though in the 1920s he ‘daren’t tell anybody because they would undoubtedly sneer’); the soloist then reminds us of that magical tune from the start of the first movement and the music dies away, at last leaving him free to embark on his display section. But after just three notes the orchestra can’t keep out of the action, heralding the end of the ‘cadenza’. That resolves the tug of war between ‘show’ and ‘inner truth’; the major/minor thirds return, and with the opening tune rounding things off the concerto ends precisely as a big-ego soloist would prefer not to end—in quiet reflection. This ‘eloquent epilogue’, says Walton’s biographer Michael Kennedy, ‘remains the single most beautiful passage in all his music, sensuous yet full of uncertainty’—which is musically apparent in the final overlap of minor (orchestra) and major (soloist). The viola holds on just that bit longer.
Walton’s original orchestration, heard on this recording, includes triple woodwind and three trumpets. In the more familiar revised version of 1961 the composer reduced these forces a little (double woodwind, two trumpets and no tuba), and added a harp. However, the original version perhaps conveys to a greater extent the freshness and grittiness of Walton’s original conception.
Edmund Rubbra sounded new musical depths after 1950, above all in his sixth symphony, and there are musical connections between that work and the viola concerto composed a year earlier, in 1952. In particular, a motif with a falling fifth, fundamental to the symphony, is a good deal in evidence in the concerto’s scherzo. At the start, its first movement also anticipates two symphonic openings from later in Rubbra’s life: a harp note and deep tremolando C look to the seventh symphony (1957), while its deep solo stringed instrument over an even lower bass is reproduced another seventeen years later at the start of the tenth symphony. As both composing colleague and former music-reviewer, Rubbra would have been well aware of Walton’s viola concerto, but it is surely pure coincidence that in both works the solo line opens with a rising minor third.
This opening, too, is predominantly thoughtful, but where Walton becomes daringly impulsive, Rubbra, for all his frequent insistence that composing was like improvisation, builds a long line with supreme skill. As so often with him, a livelier section begins about two minutes in—one can be no more exact, for one of his characteristics, sensed more clearly in the concerto’s finale, is the overlapping of sections like the links in a chain or necklace. The new one brings a further anticipation of the seventh symphony, this time of dancing, Tchaikovsky-like music at the same structural point. After a brief but violent storm has brewed up and blown over, one turn of phrase five minutes in is like a literal quotation from Tchaikovsky. The sober atmosphere, soon returning, is more than once dispelled by something almost frantic, but eventually prevails and is finally underlined in the cadenza. Despite the Elgarian precedent, the idea of couching the soloist’s traditional showpiece entirely over a brooding timpani-roll was daring and dramatic and ran the risk of alienating potential performers.
Neither Walton nor Rubbra would have wished to avoid some echo of perhaps the century’s greatest symphonist—Sibelius. Rubbra’s scherzo sets out in a Lemminkäinen mood, with the soloist first joining in the heavyweight dance, then wending his own quieter way like Berlioz’s viola-playing Harold shunning the Orgy of Brigands: as well he might, given some quite outlandish goings-on in the background, where sinister birds seem to be rehearsing for an appearance in a Hitchcock film (in the sixth symphony they reappear, now totally happy!). Though Rubbra always uses the percussion instruments with great economy, here he lets the side-drum gear itself up for its big moments in the seventh symphony. Near the end we meet someone he called his ‘far-distant Spanish ancestor’. That colourful though purely imaginary person, in evidence ever since an early violin sonata, seems to be over on a flying visit—perhaps for the 1953 Coronation, since he is also around at the opening of the BBC’s commission for the great event, Ode to the Queen. One could be hearing one of the Spanish pieces from Façade, and there is almost a feeling of parody, comparable to Bartók’s send-up of Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony in his Concerto for Orchestra. Like most Rubbra scherzos, this is for the most part uneasy music, the product of a very full mind.
Rubbra said his finale, a ‘collana musicale’ or musical necklace, was based entirely on material from the viola’s first thirteen bars, making up ‘nine interrelated meditations … without a central theme, but linked together in spirit’. The boundaries of these ‘meditations’ are often blurred by his overlapping of sections, and one may then perceive rather a gradually changing flux, within an atmosphere of intense concentration.
Meditations I and II are long and slow, minor then major, sombre then serene, and both strikingly beautiful (‘from the heart it came, may it speak to people’s hearts’, in Beethoven’s words). Another instrument Rubbra used with as much tact as economy was the harp, sometimes giving it music that suggested a clock ticking life away. That is so in the extremely still music that ends Meditation I, for viola and harp over the barest string accompaniment—it suggests someone straining his perceptions almost to the point of pain as he tries to recall something infinitely precious that is about to disappear. The rhythm changes to 6/8 (Meditation III), but the mood is still sombre, and after about seven minutes we find another Rubbra fingerprint, a series of drum beats that could be saying ‘All flesh is as grass’. Meditation IV brings a milder ‘memento mori’ from the harp, with a lovely added clarinet line that looks forward to a great moment in the slow movement of the sixth symphony. Quite abruptly (Meditation V) the music breaks into a brisker (though ephemeral) 6/8: we seem to be into a typical Rubbra form—slow first half, quick second half, in effect two movements rolled into one, a scheme he would return to in the sixth symphony. But the quick music all too soon turns back toward the minor mode and subsides (Meditation VI). In Meditation VII Old Mortality harp again seems to pluck off the moments one by one. This varied restatement of II is followed (in Meditation VIII) by another version of III, a new touch being a texture that figures in the slow movements of the preceding and ensuing symphonies (Nos 5 and 6); the entire string section plays slowly moving chords, like a cloudscape that has changed each time one looks at it. A final flurry of life (Meditation IX) looks back to a theme that opened the upbeat finale of the war-time fourth symphony; then it had been a public matter, here the composer is coming to terms with some private issue, perhaps of reassurance. And here, at least, the soloist can end on a flourish!
For a decade and more Rubbra gave the title ‘Meditation’, with its religious connotations, to various works and passages within works, not all of them slow. The last, Meditations on a Byzantine Hymn, Op 117, was one of two pieces from the 1960s for solo stringed instruments, the other being a set of variations for violin ‘on a Phrygian theme’. The viola work bases itself on the opening of a melody quoted in a volume of the History of Music in Sound edited by Rubbra’s Oxford colleague Egon Wellesz, and was written for Maurice Loban, not the most prominent violist of the day but one warmly remembered by those who knew his playing well. The first performance was on 20 December 1962 in a morning recital on the BBC Home Service—scarcely a prestigious engagement. So obscure a setting for a new work by a major composer (an important contribution, indeed, to the less-than-copious modern repertoire for solo viola) epitomized the change coming over music in Britain—imagine a new piece by Birtwistle, Maxwell Davies or Goehr tucked away in a morning recital.
This is not quite a set of variations, as we soon hear in the opening seconds of what might otherwise be taken for the first variation, but here the meditations do have ‘a central theme’, referred to many times in the course of the piece, as are the ideas heard in that ‘Meditation I’. The music covers a well-contrasted range of moods including a medieval-sounding dance and, shortly before the end, an Elizabethan-sounding one, and closes with a quiet last look at the theme. Rubbra later recomposed Meditations for two violas, published as Op 117a, transforming it from a virtuoso piece to a substantial work of chamber music. This the first recording of the solo version of this work.
Leo Black © 2007