Hyperion Records

Viola Concerto
1928/9; original version; first performed by Hindemith with the Henry Wood Symphony Orchestra under Walton on 3 October 1929 and Queen's Hall, London

'Rubbra & Walton: Viola Concertos' (CDA67587)
Rubbra & Walton: Viola Concertos
Movement 1: Andante comodo
Movement 2: Vivo, con molto preciso
Movement 3: Allegro moderato

Viola Concerto
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’.

The dreamy opening melody of the 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.

from notes by Leo Black © 2007

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