Edward Gardner conducts William Walton – Sonata for String Orchestra, Partita, and James Ehnes plays the Viola Concerto [Chandos]

4 of 5 stars

Viola Concerto [Revised Version]
Sonata for String Orchestra

James Ehnes (viola)

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Edward Gardner

Recorded 17 & 18 June 2017 at Watford Colosseum, Hertfordshire, England

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: April 2018
Duration: 66 minutes



Too fast! That’s an observation I could make several times here. As welcome as William Walton’s music always is, these performances, however skilled and however produced and recorded to the highest standards, don’t quite hit the spot, at least as far as the Viola Concerto and the Partita are concerned.

Edward Gardner drives the outer movements of the latter beyond their limit and although the BBC Symphony Orchestra retains its composure, the music’s details need greater space than this for its character to fully emerge. But then any conductor is up against it with George Szell’s amazing Cleveland recording, which casts an incredibly long shadow: it’s not so much that the execution there is of jaw-dropping virtuosity (although it is remarkable) but Szell reveals so much beyond the notes, whereas Gardner’s ‘all for show’ approach (or so it seems in comparison) stampedes over possibilities. The middle movement, ‘Pastorale Siciliana’, is nicely languorous, however, shaped with sensitivity.

It’s a similar story in the Viola Concerto (1929, composed for Lionel Tertis, who rejected the score, and so the premiere was saved by Paul Hindemith), here using the 1961 revision, for which Walton added a harp and reduced the woodwind/brass complement (mistakenly, some would say, although the first score remains performable). The second movement flies by, again passing over aspects that others have found, especially Nigel Kennedy partnered by André Previn (formerly on EMI). Nothing wrong with the playing, indeed it is certainly the molto preciso that Walton requests, but placing the notes exactingly isn’t enough. In any case I find James Ehnes somewhat outside of the outer movements’ emotions, the ear quite often drawn away from him to the orchestra, although the recorded balance is well-judged. The flanking movements fare better, their volatility in particular, but without quite holding the interest – and of Walton’s three string Concertos (the others being for Violin, Heifetz, and for Cello, Piatigorsky) this one for Viola has claims to be the finest of the trilogy.

In 1970, when Neville Marriner asked Walton for a new piece for strings, he had to be content with the composer (assisted by Malcolm Arnold) transcribing his four-movement A-minor (second) String Quartet, completed in 1947. Whether in its guise as Sonata for String Orchestra it is as successful as the chamber original is a moot point even though solo spots remain, albeit there is no doubting who the author is – the bittersweet lyricism and veiled memories, the energised rhythms teeming with fervour and incisive counterpoint tell all. If this is music that doesn’t reveal its secrets easily, then one wants to return to get to know it better, not least the middle movements – a spectral Presto (with Britten-esque touches) and an eloquent Lento – the latter suggesting some sort of love-story (Walton’s film-music skills to the fore), the expression ambivalent enough to be either the unrequited kind or clandestine, rising in despair or elicit passion. Excellent performance, that bit is certain.

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