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Walton & Barber: Violin Concertos

Thomas Bowes (violin), Malmö Opera Orchestra, Joseph Swensen (conductor)
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Label: Signum Classics
Recording details: March 2010
Malmö Opera and Music Theatre, Sweden
Produced by Tony Harrison
Engineered by Mike Hatch
Release date: April 2011
Total duration: 66 minutes 0 seconds

Walton’s Violin Concerto was composed during a stay at the stunning Villa Cimbrone on Italy's Amalfi coast, and reflects this environment in different ways—some more apparent than others (the 2nd movement is based on a ‘tarantella’, after Walton suffered a tarantula bite whilst there). The piece has endured as one of his most popular works, and is contrasted here by Barber’s Violin Concerto and famous Adagio for Strings. Making his debut recording as a soloist on Signum, Thomas Bowes has built a firm reputation as an orchestral leader, soloist and chamber musician. He has also concert-mastered many film scores—the most recent credit being for The King's Speech. The Malmö Opera Orchestra and conductor Joseph Swensen join him for this recording.


'Thomas Bowes, best known as an orchestral leader and founder member of the Maggini Quartet, shows his mettle as a formidable virtuoso in these deeply felt readings of two violin concertos that share much. The added string pieces complete what might be regarded as an ideal coupling. What is so remarkable about Bowes as a soloist is not just his technical assurance, his flawless intonation over the widest range, tonal and dynamic, but his natural feeling for warmly romantic expressiveness' (Gramophone)

'The violin concertos by William Walton and Samuel Barber are almost exactly contemporary – the Walton received its first performance in 1939, two years before the Barber—and they share not only a fundamentally tonal neo-romantic musical language, but also a prevailing mood of nostalgic wistfulness. These works are already well represented on albums, but Thomas Bowes's performances, recorded with the solo violin placed well forward in the sound picture, make a strong case for themselves, especially his account of the Barber, which captures perfectly the first movement's rhapsodic musings. Both composers are also represented in the pieces that top up the album: Passacaglia on the Death of Falstaff, and Touch Her Soft Lips and Part, both from Walton's Henry V film score, as well as, inevitably, the string-orchestra arrangement of Barber's Adagio' (The Guardian)

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Walton’s musical output, though relatively modest in quantity, includes substantial masterpieces, among them unquestionably the Violin Concerto. His family background was primarily singing (his father was a choirmaster). While a chorister at Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford, he began to compose. At the age of 16 he became an Oxford undergraduate but left after 2 years still lacking part of his degree. He had formed a friendship with the brothers Sitwell (Osbert and Sacheverell), who took him under their wing. Sitwell texts, including those by their sister Edith, were subsequently used in some of his best-known compositions, for example in Belshazzar’s Feast (Osbert) and Façade (Edith).

In spring 1938 Walton received an invitation from the British Council to compose a violin concerto for the New York World Fair. He accepted, stipulating that Heifetz, who had already commissioned a violin concerto from him, should give the first performance. Happily, a simultaneous, lucrative offer to compose a film score was resisted by Walton. On 11th May 1938 he wrote to Hubert Foss from Ravello, Italy: “It [the concerto] seems to be developing in an extremely intimate way, not much show and bravura”. But shortly afterwards fate took a hand in shaping the character of the work. He wrote again to Foss: “Having been bitten by a tarantula a rare & dangerous & unpleasant experience I have celebrated the occasion by the 2nd movement being a kind of tarantella ‘Presto cappricciosamente [sic] alla napolitana’. Quite gaga I may say, & of doubtful propriety after the 1st movement—however you will be able to judge.” In the event the work was premiered in Cleveland, Ohio, on 7th December 1939. The outbreak of war kept Walton at home, but Heifetz cabled: “Concerto enormous success. Orchestra played superbly you would have been extremely pleased. Congratulations your most successful concerto.” Walton conducted the British premiere at the Royal Albert Hall on 1st November 1941, with Henry Holst as soloist. Heifetz recorded the work first in 1941 with Eugene Goosens (predating the composer’s 1943 revisions to the scoring), and again in 1950 with the Philharmonia under Walton’s baton.

Walton was generous in his praise of artists who played his Violin Concerto.

• To George Barnes, Head of BBC Third Programme, 31st January 1947: “Would it be possible to bring over David Oistrakh the Russian violinist? I heard him in a quite stupendous performance of my Vl. Con. In Moscow last week … I believe he would make a tremendous sensation, nothing like him having been heard over here since Kreisler at his best.”
• To Yehudi Menuhin, 21st April 1970, after recording both the Violin and Viola Concerto with him: “Your playing is absolutely astounding, in fact I am unable to conjure up adequate superlatives for your interpretation and performance—nor can I thank you enough for having brought to life a dream which I thought would never come true.”
• On the same day he wrote to Griselda Kentner: “You must get the recording your brother-in-law has made of my Viola & Violin Cons. Both performances are fantastically good—I can hardly believe it—& won’t J.H. [Heifetz] be cross.”
• To Malcolm Arnold, 4th October 1972, about the recording made by Kyung-Wha Chung, conducted by André Previn: “What a girl! She has to be heard to be believed. In addition she’s very easy on the eye.”
• To Walter Legge, 18th April 1978: “Talking of recordings have you heard Jung-Wha Jungs [Kyung-Wha Chung’s] recording of mine [my Violin Concerto]. Superb! as good as Heifetz or Francescatti.”

The first movement demonstrates Walton’s ability to change the character of his themes by rhythmical transformation. The lyrical subjects of the exposition become almost unrecognisably angular and dramatic in their treatment in the development section, providing both contrast and unity. The ending restores the tranquillity of the opening bars, only to be shattered by the biting attack of the 2nd movement’s tarantula, which enters unannounced. If Walton had a miraculous escape, the soloist will be no less fortunate to survive the poisonous, but exhilarating, virtuosity that courses through the veins of this music. The Canzonetta trio section, with its beautiful horn solo, attempts to administer a calming vaccine. After a little while it takes effect on the soloist but, like an addiction, the poison returns and orchestra and soloist dance together in step, brushing aside a doomed second attempt to bring the venom under control. The Finale commences with a dry staccato theme given out initially by the lower strings. The intensely warm, soaring second subject arrives, therefore, with maximum effect. In the development it proves contrapuntally compatible with the first subject, as does the first movement’s opening melody when introduced at the recapitulation. A ravishing, accompanied cadenza completes this brilliantly creative and melodic work.

Walton wrote his first film score in 1934 and his last big project for the cinema was his music for ‘The Battle of Britain’ in 1968. Of the many scores written between, the three Olivier-Shakespeare films, Henry V, Richard III and Hamlet all possess music worthy of the concert hall. Various suites of the music from Henry V have been put together but these movements from two touching moments in the film are the ones most often played.

Samuel Barber showed early musical aptitude, playing piano and cello and completing the first act of an opera, The Rose Tree, by the time he was ten. He was organist at his local church in West Chester, Pennsylvania, from about the age of 12 and at 14 entered the newly-founded Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, studying piano, singing and composition. Four years later he made his first journey to Europe, absorbing the cultural influences of France, Italy, Austria and Germany which were to engage and influence him throughout his life.

His musical style is seen as conservative, tonal and based on traditional forms. In a century in which the new, the iconoclastic and the radical dominated the artistic scene it was not an easy position to take. As he himself said: “I think that what’s been holding composers back a great deal is that they feel they must have a new style every year. This, in my case, would be hopeless … I just go on doing, as they say, my thing. I believe this takes a certain courage” (John Gruen, “And Where Has Samuel Barber Been …?” New York Times 3 October 1971). Barber ventured into instrumental and vocal genres, both sacred and secular, though he seems particularly comfortable writing for voices.

The Violin Concerto was composed in 1939–40 and premiered the following year with Albert Spalding (violin) and the Philadelphia Orchestra, conducted by Eugene Ormandy. It was commissioned by Samuel Fels, a trustee of the Curtis Institute, for the violinist Iso Briselli. Barber’s original letter to Fels, dated “May 4–1939”, accepting the commission and anticipating a work “of about 15 minutes duration” and further relevant typewritten correspondence can be viewed on the internet at www.isobriselli.com. There were concerns expressed about the effectiveness (some say the difficulty) of the last movement. When Barber refused to reconsider Briselli withdrew, and the first performance was then offered to Spalding. Much later, in 1948, Barber made some revisions.

The work is deeply lyrical. Barber dispenses with the conventional orchestral tutti, giving the opening first subject directly to the soloist. The delicacy of the orchestral scoring by no means precludes contrapuntal interest. The second subject, presented first by the clarinet, bears the distinctive stamp of American folk music with its fourths and a dotted snap. The material is developed extensively, with opportunities provided for the soloist to melt the heart, rather than merely to dazzle. A brief cadenza marks the start of the coda.

The character of the expressive slow movement is laid down by the oboe, with the melodic line taken up subsequently throughout the orchestra. The soloist is obliged to wait until the arrival of the second subject to make his presence felt. The cadenza at the conclusion of the development section is accompanied by long, held notes in the 1st horn and 1st bassoon, demanding the lung-power of a synchronised swimmer.

The Finale is a true moto perpetuo, similar in concept, if not in style, to the Finale of Ravel’s Violin Sonata. The orchestra, too, has to maintain full alertness and vigilance. The story that Barber asked a student, Herbert Baumel, to learn the solo part and play it to him within two hours appears to be true. It seems to have been only up to bar 94 (1’48” see Barbara Heyman, Samuel Barber: The Composer and his Music, 193-4), but that was enough for Barber to proclaim that it was playable. The final bars introduce even faster notes and the work concludes with a dazzling arpeggio disappearing into the upper atmosphere.

Barber’s most enduring legacy is, of course, the Adagio from his string quartet Op 11. He had considerable difficulty in arriving at a shape for the quartet with which he was happy. He seemed though, to know immediately that the Adagio would work, writing in September 1936, “… just finished the slow movement of my quartet today—it is a knockout!”. Having met the composer some years before in Italy, it was Toscanini who asked Barber for a piece he might present at an NBC Symphony Orchestra broadcast to feature new American music. As well as composing the Essay for Orchestra Op 12 for Toscanini, Barber made this transcription of the quartet’s slow movement for full strings, and both it and the Essay received their first performances with the NBC Symphony Orchestra under Toscanini’s baton on 5th November 1938. The Adagio’s huge popularity may have irked him (though probably not his bank manager!), considering the wide range of his output. In an interview with Allan Kozinn (High Fidelity, June 1981) Barber said: “Sometimes I get tired of hearing the Adagio for Strings. But I amuse myself during performances because I know there’s going to be a mistake somewhere. Happens everytime.”

Adam Chambers © 2011

I never met Walton or Barber. It seems to me that I should want to have done, but meetings between the old and wise (or world weary), and the young and ambitious tend to be uncomfortable affairs. I was an idealistic 22 year-old when Walton died and a dreamy 16 your-old when Barber reached the end of his life, and to be truthful, I would have had no idea what to say or where to start. I settled, thankfully, for getting to know them through their music. Recordings, concerts and some stumbling performances made up my early knowledge. Later, much later, I studied these pieces properly and began to absorb their deep beauty. But I see now that my early relationship with the music had run very deep, and it is those early feelings that I most treasure and which study can only help to crystallise.

I must have played the Barber Adagio as a teenager in youth orchestra and later I played in performances of such pieces as the School For Scandal overture, Knoxville: Summer of 1915 and Dover Beach. But it took an American—Joseph Swensen, then planning to conduct performances of Barber’s opera Vanessa—to invite me to play the violin concerto. I have come to adore this piece and I love the way that its brevity utterly belies its emotional impact. It has a unique and disarming honesty to it. For instance, I can’t think of any other music which quite encapsulates ‘hope’ as the music between figures 9 (4’28”) and 10 (4’56”) in the first movement. There is available on the internet (perhaps not entirely legally?), a recording of Barber himself singing Dover Beach: I listened to this more than once in my preparations for playing the concerto. It is extraordinarily moving and powerful.

The Walton violin concerto first entered my teenage consciousness through a set of ancient 78’s found in the attic. At 14, the name Jascha Heifetz used to cause me almost as much of a frisson as my cricketing heroes, and here was a recording of my icon playing a Walton violin concerto, spread across some four hefty shellac discs. Heifetz’s recordings were not that easy to get hold of in the UK in the early 70’s and here was I perhaps stealing a march on my violin mad friends. I rushed down the flimsy ladder somehow not allowing the whole set to smash to the floor, and played the entire piece through.

I remember vividly that melting opening and the frustrating fumble as the ensuing tutti was broken off at the end of the first side. I also remember Heifetz’s taut and furious dash through that scary second movement. It would be some years before my crush on the gritty Heifetz style wore off a little and I began to see other characters emerge from this most romantic work. When in the summer of 2004 I had the great good fortune to be invited by Lady Walton to spend some time on Ischia as I worked on the concerto, I was able to visit the place of its writing, not far away at the Villa Cimbrone on the Amalfi coast, and to soak up the atmosphere of this extraordinarily beautiful place.

Coming to this part of the Mediterranean clearly had a profound and lasting effect on Walton when he’d first left England with the Sitwell brothers in 1920, and its magical quality is telling in this work, I think. In Tony Palmer’s 1981 ITV film “At the Haunted End of the Day”, Walton speaks about the journey by train through a rain soaked France and the moment of astonishment at leaving the last Alpine tunnel into blinding Italian sunshine. He also speaks about the concerto:

“Most of it was written at Ravello, near Amalfi, at the Villa Cimbrone where I spent a lot of time with a lady I loved very dearly, Alice Wimborne…Very intelligent, very kind…We had a little room outside the main gate. Alice was very good at making me work and would get very cross if I mucked about.”

The concerto was completed back in England in the inauspicious summer of 1939. Unlike its almost exact contemporary—the violin concerto of Benjamin Britten—this work’s drama has no premonitions or forebodings of world events. Rather, it is wrapped in an intensely personal realm; its narrative a love story that finally unfolds in an accompanied cadenza near the end of the work; the same device used so memorably by Elgar in his violin concerto. In fact, these two works share a common key as well as this feature, though temperamentally they could not be more different. Both the cadenzas are a summing up of all that has gone before, but while the Elgar acknowledges the loss of love, the Walton seems to signal an acceptance of it. I like to think of the moment at rehearsal figure 75 (8’53”) as the actual moment of release; all resistance is finally overcome—as if the concerto’s subject finally gives in.

Thomas Bowes © 2011

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