Barber; Walton Violin Concertos

Author: 
Edward Greenfield

Barber; Walton Violin Concertos

  • Concerto for Violin and Orchestra
  • Baal Shem
  • Concerto for Violin and Orchestra
  • Concerto for Piano and Orchestra
  • Concerto for Violin and Orchestra
  • Souvenirs

Over the last few years a surprising number of fine recordings have appeared of the Barber Violin Concerto, notably those from Gil Shaham and Itzhak Perlman, both ripely romantic with the soloist sounding all the richer for being forwardly placed. These two latest versions both have the soloist less forward, and though in places the results are less inviting, the poetry is if anything even more intense, notably in Bell’s Decca recording. There in the central slow movement the long, opening oboe solo leads to a magically hushed first entry for the violin, rapt and intense, and the balance of the soloist also allows a quicksilver lightness for the rushing triplets in the moto perpetuo finale. Shaham may find more humour in that brief movement, but Bell’s view is equally valid, and can be recommended strongly if the Walton/Bloch coupling is preferred.
Robert McDuffie is another powerful virtuoso with a formidable technique, if not quite so individual in his pointing of phrase and line as Bell or Shaham. Even so his reading makes an excellent coupling for Jon Kimura Parker’s outstanding performance of the Barber Piano Concerto and the suite, Souvenirs.
The Telarc Atlanta recording seems to open out rather more in this later, more problematic concerto, with the solo piano caught with extra weight and presence. The almost improvisatory progressions in the long first movement, difficult to hold together, inspire both the soloist and the orchestra to a performance of the keenest intensity, rather tauter and more purposeful than the fine one which John Browning, the pianist for whom the work was written, recorded for RCA with Slatkin and the St Louis orchestra.
Parker is not just commanding in the daunting bravura passages, he finds tender poetry in such reflective passages as the return of the second subject in the first movement (track 10, 10'55'') and in his warm and velvety playing of the central Canzone. Browning by comparison is rather cooler in his expressiveness. His RCA version is coupled with Barber’s First Symphony and Souvenirs in its original piano-duet form, in which he is joined by Slatkin as second pianist. The new Telarc disc includes Barber’s orchestration of the suite, with Yoel Levi in his rhythmic pointing equally bringing out the wit and fun of these dance movements.
Joshua Bell’s coupling of the Barber Violin Concerto with Walton and Bloch brings together three highly romantic concertante works. From an American perspective Walton can well be seen as Barber’s British counterpart, not least in this concerto written for Heifetz with an American first performance in mind. As in Heifetz’s original Cincinnati recording and Francescatti’s later Philadelphia one, the playing of an American orchestra – here the Baltimore Symphony – is warmly idiomatic, defying the idea that non-British orchestras find Walton difficult.
Bell gives a commanding account of the solo part, even matching Heifetz himself in the ease of his virtuosity. As in the Barber concerto the balance allows the triplets in the central scherzo to be delivered with quicksilver lightness, and I love the way that Bell treats the central cadenza of the first movement expansively, making it more deeply reflective.
Not just there but in many gentle moments the rapt intensity of his playing is magnetic. There are points which I still prefer in two earlier Decca versions – Kyung-Wha Chung’s with Previn (5/73 – alas currently unavailable) and Tasmin Little’s warmly expressive one with Andrew Litton, but Bell’s is among the finest ever, with Bloch’s own 1939 orchestration of Baal Shem offering a fine, unusual makeweight.'

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