Walton Violin & Viola Concertos
For many years there have been rumours that Pinchas Zukerman, one of the world's outstanding viola players in addition to being a supreme violin virtuoso, would match Sir Yehudi Menuhin's feat of recording both these Walton concertos as he did for EMI. In the event Nigel Kennedy has neatly stepped in, and—with the uniquely expert guidance of Andre Previn—produced a recording of both works which in this coupling is unlikely to be bettered for a long time. Even next to the finest individual recordings of the two works, differently coupled, Kennedy provides formidable competition. In every way this brings a welcome counterpart to Kennedy's outstanding recording of the Elgar Violin Concerto,
Warmly expressive as Menuhin was in both works, spaciously romantic and characteristically individual in every phrase, he is not a natural Waltonian, even with the composer to guide him. The comparison with Kennedy is fascinating. Not surprisingly, Kennedy's jazz sympathies give his playing a natural bite in the sharply syncopated passages so typical of Walton, matching Previn's similarly jazz-founded understanding. Menuhin by comparison is too smooth. In the yearningly romantic melodies, too, Kennedy is the more sympathetic, when he keeps expressive fluctuations more strictly within bounds.
The most controversial point of both interpretations of the Viola Concerto comes in the speed of the Andante comodo first movement. Kennedy is almost as slow as Menuhin and far slower than usual—but his pulse is steadier. The aching melancholy of that lovely opening, the dreamy quality of the second subject (sognando the marking) are caught more hauntingly, and the sharpness of the contrasting scherzando passages prevents the result from sounding self-indulgent or sentimental.
Kennedy's viola tone as in his Prom performance last summer, given the day before the recording sessions—is wonderfully rich and firm, while exploiting the widest dynamic range. If in the first movement I still prefer the faster speed favoured by Primrose in his historic recording now reissued in the EMI Treasury series, Kennedy's view of the scherzo is certainly preferable, headlong and energetic but without any of Primrose's breathlessness. Primrose, incidentally, modified his hectic speed for the version he recorded later with Sargent (reissued several years ago on a CBS disc of archive Walton recordings—71115, 10/83). In the finale Kennedy's natural contrasting of the romantic and the scherzando sides of Walton are again most convincing, and the epilogue brings the most magic moment, when the pianissimo return of the first movement main theme is so hushed you hear it as though from the distance.
The marking sognando also comes at the opening of the Violin Concerto, and again Kennedy captures it beautifully. You might argue that he is the more dreamy compared with Kyung-Wha Chung on Decca, when his manner is more relaxed, less yearningly intense, a quality which generally makes her performance so magnetic. Kennedy's is a gloriously rich and red-blooded reading of the whole work, bringing ripe playing in the big romantic melodies balanced with formidable bravura in the contrasting passages written with Heifetz in mind. More than with Chung I have the feeling that Kennedy has studied Heifetz's reading (HMV DB2125/9, 5/51—nla). The precision and point of his double-stopping are phenomenal, while the humour of such a passage as the molto rubato Spanish theme in the scherzo or that movement's pay-off pizzicato chord is deliciously touched in. The obvious parallel in the accompanied cadenza of the finale with the one in the Elgar Concerto is brought out very effectively in the meditative hush of the playing and the march coda, difficult to bring off, is swaggeringly done with the reverberance of the recording a great help.
For a coupling of two of the most beautiful string concertos written this century, this Kennedy record will, I am sure, set standards for many years to come. In the Violin Concerto, at the final count, I still prefer Chung for her more concentrated and heartfelt playing, the sense of struggle that communicates an extra depth, with fiery virtuosity to match Kennedy's. The 1973 recording still sounds superb just as warm as the new EMI with a little more inner clarity. I should love to have it on CD, and now that Chung's early version of the Tchaikovsky has appeared on a Decca Ovation CD, her 1971 version of the Sibelius would make an excellent coupling instead of the original Stravinsky, which could then fill out her equally fine versions of the two Prokofiev concertos. Meanwhile the Kennedy recording is full and rounded, well-balanced with the soloist's wide dynamic range fully conveyed. It will make a particularly welcome addition to the CD catalogue.'