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Sir William WALTON (1902-1983)
Violin Concerto (Original Version, 1939) [30:23]
Sir Arthur BLISS (1891-1975)
Violin Concerto (1955) [41:20]
Lorraine McAslan (violin)
BBC Concert Orchestra/Martin Yates
rec. 2015/16, Watford Colosseum

This welcome issue from Lorraine McAslan and Martin Yates breaks new ground in at least two respects. It is, I am certain, the first disc to offer the eminently apt and generous coupling of these two British violin concertos, written within twenty years of each other and, in each case, with the needs and personality of a particular eminent soloist in mind – Walton’s Concerto was written for Jascha Heifetz and Bliss’s for Alfredo Campoli. Moreover the Walton performance is the first digital (and indeed stereo) recording of the original, 1939 version of the work, as distinct from the much more familiar 1943 revision. The composer’s first thoughts have not been set down on disc since the pioneering 1941 version by Heifetz himself, with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and Eugene Goossens (review) – not to be confused with Heifetz’s later, 1950 recording with Walton himself conducting the Philharmonia, which uses the revised score.

That said, the 1939 original does not sound fundamentally different from what we are used to. The solo part, indeed, is exactly the same. Listeners familiar with the Concerto will, however, notice many minor and some not so minor changes of orchestration. The first passage most (with the help of Stephen Lloyd’s excellent notes) will immediately register as unfamiliar occurs almost three minutes in, where in the revised score we are used to hearing a flute, violins and cellos; here, however, we discover that, in 1939, essentially the same music was allotted to a solo horn, clarinet, bassoon and harp. There is quite a bit of this sort of thing. The biggest overall difference, I would say, is that percussion instruments (not least castanets, glockenspiel and bass drum) tended to be more prominent in 1939, before being in various ways ‘thinned out’ in 1943; and overall the original orchestration comes across as slightly quirkier and more astringent, perhaps therefore a little more characteristic of the younger Walton than of his (more ‘Romantic’, more Mediterranean?) 1940s self.

None of this would matter much if McAslan’s and Yates’s performance wasn’t up to scratch; but fortunately it is very much so. McAslan is, as always, passionate and committed (as well as technically flawless), and her strong, clear but consistently beautiful tone gives enormous pleasure. Yates and the BBC Concert Orchestra also come across as thoroughly enjoying both the work of their soloist and the opportunity to discover new things in the orchestral score.

Bliss’s Violin Concerto, composed in the mid-1950s, is not altogether flattered by its juxtaposition with Walton’s masterpiece. It doesn’t really share the same level of melodic invention, and comes across as a little over-long for its material. It remains, though, a highly accomplished work, featuring a thematically rich first movement, a structurally complex and often very beautiful finale and, between them, what for me is the work’s highlight – an imaginatively scored dance-like scherzo which, the composer declared, was inspired both by Berlioz’s Queen Mab and the character of Ariel from Shakespeare’s Tempest. Lloyd tells us that a 74-bar cut in this movement that Bliss himself sanctioned is here opened out. Again, one feels that McAslan’s performance, which communicates vividly whilst holding the work firmly together, could not easily be bettered.

Indeed, there seem only to have been three previous recordings of the work: two featuring Campoli and Bliss, a studio performance from 1955 and a live one from 1968, and a 2006 Chandos issue from Lydia Mordkovitch and Richard Hickox. Rob Barnett (review) has briefly surveyed all three, and provided some instructive timings for the individual movements. McAslan’s (15:04, 9:20, 16:56) generally fall somewhere between those of Campoli and Mordkovitch, especially when the opened-out cut is taken into account; and this rather confirms my impression that, through their combination of architectural rigour and generous expressivity, she and Yates succeed in getting the best of both worlds.

In the case of the Walton Concerto, of course, competition is much fiercer. There is no shortage of excellent recent performances from the likes of (in alphabetical order!) Thomas Bowes, James Ehnes, Dong-Suk Kang, Tamsin Little and Anthony Marwood. Personally, too, I have always held a candle for the wonderfully warm-hearted 1970s performance by Ida Haendel and Paavo Berglund, still available in various guises as a download. Choice between these will doubtless depend on various factors: price, couplings (these vary enormously), loyalty to a particular artist, and so on. I can state with confidence, though, that Lorraine McAslan is fully worthy of being considered alongside these eminent colleagues – at least if one does not mind having the 1939 score, rather than the 1943 one. Even if it does, however, her new disc remains highly appealing. With its consistent musical excellence, faultless recording, and marked originality of text and coupling, it would grace anyone’s shelves. I recommend it most warmly, both to those who already know these concertos and to those who don’t.
Nigel Harris



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