WALTON Viola Concerto (Ehnes)
It’s not just critics who get things wrong. Even great soloists have occasionally rejected concertos before changing their minds. Nikolay Rubinstein was scornful of Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto at a play-through before later becoming an advocate, while Leopold Auer initially refused to touch the same composer’s Violin Concerto, which had been dedicated to him. At the suggestion of Thomas Beecham, William Walton wrote his Viola Concerto for Lionel Tertis, who rejected the manuscript out of hand, at which point Paul Hindemith stepped in to give the premiere at a 1929 Proms concert. Tertis changed his mind and championed the concerto, later performing it at the Three Choirs Festival in 1932 (where Elgar was less than impressed).
That Walton’s is one of the great concertos written for the viola cannot be doubted, especially when you consider the number of violinists who have muscled in to take it into their repertoire. Yehudi Menuhin recorded it in 1968, under the composer’s baton, an account which set a trend for leisurely tempos in the Andante comodo first movement. Nigel Kennedy (1987) and Maxim Vengerov (2002) followed, to which may now be added this splendid new account from James Ehnes with the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Edward Gardner.
What is immediately apparent is that Ehnes and Gardner take us back to those pre-Menuhin tempos, only a fraction slower than William Primrose’s pioneering 1946 recording. There’s a grand sweep to the performance which is wholly engaging in its refusal to wallow. Ehnes’s burnished viola tone is noble and warm, without Vengerov’s lusciousness but also without its tendency to cloy. The Vivo middle movement dances along in the highest of spirits, while Ehnes’s playing in the finale balances sweetness with energy.
Gardner keeps things moving, the BBC SO romping along in the opening movement (5'02") and the bassoon bouncing jauntily to introduce the finale. Vengerov and Rostropovich drag this out to well beyond 16 minutes, whereas Ehnes and Gardner are done soon after the 11 minute mark, without compromising on the satisfying sense of repose in the concerto’s hushed coda. A winning interpretation.
In his third volume of Walton, Gardner conducts a lithe performance of the Sonata for string orchestra (Walton’s arrangement – at Neville Marriner’s suggestion – of his First String Quartet) and a suitably boisterous Partita to fill out the disc. The Toccata swaggers along with tremendous vigour, the BBC SO brass in great form and in characteristically red-blooded Chandos sound, while the Giga burlesca finale is guaranteed to raise a smile.