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Walton & Shostakovich: Cello Concertos

Jamie Walton (cello), Philharmonia Orchestra, Alexander Briger (conductor)
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Label: Signum Classics
Recording details: December 2009
Henry Wood Hall, Glasgow, Scotland
Produced by John H West
Engineered by Andrew Mellor & Alex Foster
Release date: November 2010
Total duration: 72 minutes 18 seconds

The outstanding British cellist Jamie Walton is joined by the Philharmonia Orchestra under Alexander Briger. This album includes William Walton's 1975 revision to the final movement of the Cello Concerto, which has never before been recorded or publically performed (as well as a performance of the original final movement).

This release completes an Anglo-Russian trilogy of recordings by Jamie with this orchestra and conductor, proceed by pairings of Elgar & Myaskovsky and Britten & Shostakovich. Both discs were released to great critical acclaim.


'The elegiac quality in [the Walton] very much suits Jamie Walton's style,with his sweet, smooth cello tone, but he is also capable of powerfully attacking the vigorous writing … [the Shostakovich] is a most compelling performance, very strong rhythmically, with the Philharmonia's first horn relishing what amounts to a concertante role … a most valuable and enjoyable dis' (Gramophone)

'Jamie Walton's warm and beautifully focused way with the work excels in its own right … the same unflashily vivid brilliance brings in a rich harvest in Shostakovich's First Concerto … his keening way with the slow movement's lyrical lament marks out a remarkable player. Alexander Briger and the Philharmonia supply superb accompaniments' (BBC Music Magazine)

'With the Philharmonia alert both to the brio and to the underlying pensive traits of the concerto, Jamie Walton has an ideal partner, echoed in a performance of the Shostakovich that is lithe, pungent and, just as it should be, profoundly disquieting' (The Telegraph)» More
After leaving Oxford University in 1920, having failed to pass his degree, it didn’t take William Walton more than a couple of years to make his first indelible mark on the British musical scene. ‘As a musical joker, he is a jewel of the first order’ wrote the eminent critic Ernest Newman, after a performance of the young composer’s ‘entertainment’, Façade. Still only in his early twenties, Walton threw in to this miscellany for speaker and instruments every influence he could find in the musical palate of the day: cabaret, the fox-trot, charleston and other popular dances, all the rage at the time, were mixed with ragtime, nascent jazz. Even Stravinsky and Schoenberg make their presence felt through influences from The Soldier’s Tale and Pierrot lunaire respectively. During this period, Walton had been staying with Edith, Osbert and Sacheverell Sitwell. As an elected family member of these well-connected literary types, Walton was introduced to many of the most glittering figures on the arts scene between the wars. He could count Cecil Beaton, Siegfried Sassoon, Lytton Strachey, Noel Coward and Constant Lambert as friends or, at very least, sometime acquaintances and also met some of the major composers of the age, such as Gershwin and Stravinsky. Eager to move on to matters more serious than Façade, Walton in the later 1920s and 30s began to develop his own take on more traditional classical forms with his overture, Portsmouth Point, the First Symphony, the oratorio, Belshazzar’s Feast and the Viola Concerto—all of which made speedy inroads into permanently entering the standard repertory.

During the Second World War, Walton set aside his ‘serious’ compositional side and set to work on a number of patriotic film projects, the most memorable being Henry V and The First of the Few. The latter of these dramatised the development of the Spitfire fighter plane, and from it Walton extracted the spectacular Spitfire Prelude and Fugue, which stands beside his two coronation works, Crown Imperial and Orb and Sceptre as stalwarts of any celebration of Britishness to this day. After the war, Walton’s fame as arguably Britain’s key composer since Vaughan Williams was gradually eroded by the inexorable rise of Benjamin Britten who was achieving great success with his operas. On a level of acquaintance and musical respect, Walton and Britten were generally on good terms, but there was also a little sliver of envy in Walton for the younger composer’s level of fame and perceived protean productivity. Walton himself often complained about the difficulty he experienced when trying to set a work down on manuscript paper. But he was steadily broadening his own niche with subtle developments in tone and sophistication which the Cello Concerto and other works, such as the opera Troilus and Cressida, the Variations on a Theme by Hindemith and the Second Symphony attest. As to the perception that Walton did indeed find composition a painful process, his wife Susana seems to both confirm and deny this in the same sentence when writing about the Cello Concerto itself:

‘[Walton] thought of the cello as a melancholy instrument, full of soul; accordingly, he wrote a rather sad tune to the opening … He certainly had a special affection for the Cello Concerto as it had come very spontaneously, and he felt it was the closest to his personality’.

Following the success of the Viola and Violin Concertos, Walton must have had high hopes for his third essay in the genre. After all, the extrovert, vivid Violin Concerto had been commissioned by the great Jascha Heifetz, who both premiered it and recorded it for the first time. The earlier Viola Concerto had been written for the virtuoso, Lionel Tertis, but was eventually performed, to much critical acclaim by none other than Paul Hindemith. Composed between February and October 1956, the Cello Concerto was likewise commissioned and first performed by another instrumental titan, in this case Gregor Piatigorsky. The premiere took place in Boston, on 25 January 1957, with Charles Munch conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Walton’s reputation in America was immediately vastly enhanced by the occasion. However, back in London, there was a rather mixed reception to it, as there had been to the composer’s previous work, Troilus and Cressida. For his part, Walton was very happy with the work. Piatigorsky, though, entered into lengthy correspondence with Walton over the matter of how the concerto should end, and the composer, interviewed in 1977, admitted that, ‘I didn’t have any [doubts] till many years later. Then I thought, ‘Perhaps he’s right’.’ The present recording resurrects a 22 bar replacement conclusion to the work, which was composed in 1974, fulfilling Piatigorsky’s request for ‘a less melancholy ending’. Approved by Piatigorsky, he alas did not live long enough to publicly premiere the revision and it has remained unrecorded and unperformed until now. In a recording first, Jamie Walton has elected to restore William Walton’s final thoughts on the concerto whilst also setting down the original ending, which appears in this recording as a bonus track.

The first movement’s opening ‘tick-tock’ vacillation immediately makes the listener think of Walton the film composer, such is its portentous effect. But before long the cello slowly unwinds a beautiful, long, dark melody which, together with the ‘ticking’, provides the main meat and mood of the movement. The following Allegro is a very nervy affair with virtuosic writing for the soloist in music which flashes and flickers in a manner akin to many of Walton’s earlier compositions. The finale, a theme with variations, or ‘improvisations’ as the composer labelled them, has the solo cello and orchestra essentially alternate the variations. A spectacular array of moods, from tender to fierce and rhapsodic to restrained, are essayed before the cello ends the drama by dropping down to its lowest open string, allowing the orchestra to conclude the work in a mood of easeful repose.

As a 27-year-old, in 1934, Shostakovich had a runaway, worldwide success with his opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, which was regarded as a high-water mark in Soviet opera and was praised by the authorities as, ‘the result of the general success of socialist construction’. In 1936, with the arts now under centralized control under the All-Union Committee on Artistic Affairs, the tide was turning against any composers with ‘formalist’ tendencies. Stalin attended a performance of Lady Macbeth in January of that year and was offended by the forthrightness of the subject matter and Shostakovich’s advanced musical language. Two days later, the now notorious Pravda editorial appeared describing Lady Macbeth under the headline ‘Muddle instead of Music’ as a ‘discordant, confused stream of sounds … the music cracks, grunts and growls’. A few days later, his ballet, The Limpid Stream, which was in the repertory of the Bolshoi Ballet at the time, fared no better under the banner, ‘Balletic Falsehood’. Although now seen as preposterous and philistine, at the time these were unprecedented articles. Pravda, the official organ of Soviet Communism, disapproved in language verging upon the violent; the ‘cheap clowning’ of Lady Macbeth being chillingly described as ‘a game of clever ingenuity that may end very badly’. The party had spoken—this music was not to be imitated and the works in question disappeared from the repertory forthwith.

Although the ramifications of the editorials were not immediately clear, the aftershocks rippled rapidly through Soviet culture. With Stalin gearing up for the first of the infamous Moscow show trials later in the year, and the Great Purge hot on their heels, everyone had to watch their step. Shostakovich had been working on his colossal, modernist Fourth Symphony for some time, but it no longer suited the mood of the times and he was forced to withdraw it during rehearsals, in December 1936. Neither the Fourth Symphony nor Lady Macbeth would be heard again for some 25 years. The golden boy of Soviet music had become a degenerate corrupter. Shostakovich managed to claw his way out of this horror by presenting his Fifth Symphony—‘a Soviet artist’s creative response to justified criticism’. The triumph was immediate and the applause tumultuously greeted Shostakovich’s rehabilitation as a truly great Soviet artist. Even the critics were eventually effusive in their praise, affirming that the composer was being invited back into the party fold.

After a second period of fresh charges of ‘formalism’ in 1948, Shostakovich was again cast into the wilderness until a relaxation of the artistic manacles followed the death of Stalin in 1953. By late 1954, Shostakovich’s yo-yoing career was back in the ascendant after being awarded the title of People’s Artist of the USSR. With Nikita Krushchev now in power and de-Stalinisation in the air, the dark Winter of Stalin appeared to be thawing into a new spring for the Soviet Union. In 1958 Shostakovich was awarded the Lenin Prize for his Eleventh Symphony, despite it often being thought of as apparently disguised protest against Russia’s brutal demolition of the Hungarian uprising of October 1956. It appealed to the authorities, despite its dark, meditative nature, and was made palatable to the public only through its many moments of painful beauty, some Tchaikovskian touches and very knowing deployment of melodies from famous revolutionary songs. Shostakovich’s return to fame, and, if not fortune, then the ability to lay claim to the benefits of once again being the great Soviet composer of choice, were not to be sniffed at. But, times were still difficult, and in 1957, after Boris Pasternak’s Western publication of his novel Doctor Zhivago, which truthfully depicts Stalin’s years, life became once again stressful for the whole artistic community. Unable or unwilling to protest, Shostakovich retreated into composition and produced one his finest large-scale works, the Cello Concerto No 1 in E flat, Op 107.

Shostakovich and the great cellist, Mstislav Rostropovich first met at the Moscow conservatory where the cellist (then also a budding composer) entered Shostakovich’s composition class in 1943. Their good friendship seems to have remained tinged with a master-pupil relationship, though Shostakovich was not short on kindnesses such as helping to fund the young man’s first concert suit. That both of Shostakovich’s concertos were written specifically for Rostropovich is testimony enough to the esteem in which the composer held the cellist. Rostropovich, in interviews, speaks of his older friend with a mixture of awe and admiration. On his days spent as a student playing duets and learning composition from Shostakovich he opines, ‘That was a real musical university for my life’. And in interview after interview similar emerges Shostakovich’s ‘deep humanity towards everything—in life, in his relationships and in his art’. On his plans to ask the composer to write a concerto for him, Rostropovich later recalled:

Once, when talking with Nina Vasilyevna, [Shostakovich’s] late wife, I raised the question of a commission: ‘Nina Vasilyevna, what should I do to make Dmitri Dmitriyevich write me a cello concerto?’ She answered, ‘Slava, if you want Dmitri Dmitriyevich to write something for you, the only recipe I can give you is this—never ask him or talk to him about it.’

Shostakovich was no different from all great composers who are moved by the great talents of performing artists to write for them, and so Rostropovich eventually got his concerto and performed it with the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra under the direction of Evgeni Mravinsky on 4 October 1959. One of the great cello concertos of the last century or so, Shostakovich, when asked about meaning in the piece countered gnomically that he merely ‘took a simple, tiny theme and tried to develop it’. This is a spine-tingling, neurotic work, from one who was prone to nerves and paranoia, and understandably so given the privations he had suffered under such a highly paranoid regime. But it is also remarkably spirited rather than depressive in character and holds the listener enthralled throughout.

The first movement, according to Shostakovich, is a ‘jocular march’—but there’s not a lot of straight-ahead humour to be found here. Instead, an electric, frenetic energy which sparks up immediately from the cello’s opening spiky four-note motif. The only brass instrument in the score, a lone French horn plays an important, almost concertante role in the whole work—sometimes shadowing the solo cello, sometimes commentating, but never straying too far from the soloist. The three remaining movements are played without a break; the slow movement opening with the horn in lyric mode, setting the elegiac tone for the section. This leads directly into the cadenza, which is long enough to constitute a movement in itself. The finale is a driven affair in which Shostakovich ironically quotes the Georgian song Suliko, apparently much favoured by Stalin. Grimness and frenzy are the touchstones again, with the horn returning to reclaim the opening four-note motif of the work which then entangles with the finale’s main theme and worked on every more stridently until the bang of the timpani brings the concerto to a sudden close.

M Ross © 2010

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