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Sir Arnold BAX (1883-1953)
Phantasy for Viola and orchestra (1920) [20:09] Sir William WALTON (1902-1983)
Concerto for Viola and Orchestra (1929 version) [26:32] Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958) Suite for Viola and orchestra (1933/4) [26:02]
Hong-Mei Xiao (viola)
Budapest Symphony Orchestra MAV/János Kovács
rec. Studio 22, Hungarian Radio, Budapest, 2014 DELOS DE3486 [73:10]
There are several recordings of Walton’s Viola Concerto. Do you have a favourite? I rather like the one by Lawrence Power on Hyperion (CDA 67578) coupled with the Rubbra. Nigel Kennedy recorded it with Andre Previn for EMI. For Chandos, Nobuko Imai recorded it (CHAN 9106); there are a few more. Now, I am not familiar with all of these, but it seems to me that this version does not put a foot wrong and is recorded and presented in a glowing and persuasive manner.
I start with this piece because the other two concertos on the disc are much less well known. Indeed, I had never heard the Bax before. His Viola Sonata, like the other works here written for Lionel Tertis, is a little more often performed. Vaughan Williams’
Suite is a little better served on CD. Again Lawrence Power has recorded it for Hyperion, coupled with the rare McEwen Viola Concerto. Anyway, it was Tertis who might have first performed the Walton but he rejected it, much to his later regret, as being too modernistic. He then heard Hindemith play the work and became a fan. Even so, Walton, possibly taking some criticism on board re-orchestrated it in 1962; both versions later carried the composer’s blessing. Christopher Wellington then edited the score in 2002 and it is his edition of the 1929 original that is given its premiere recording here. So if I say that Hong-Mei Xiao is more relaxed in tempo than say, Nigel Kennedy, that comment may not be relevant. I have not seen either score and I am not sure if tempo indications, let alone phrasings and dynamics, are different.
Lionel Tertis did give the first performance of Vaughan Williams’ Suite in 1934. This is an eight-movement work, totally imbued with summertime warmth and the elegance of folksong in each movement. It is typical RVW; I was quite surprised that in The Cambridge Companion to Vaughan Williams published as recently as 2013 the Suite is not alluded to. Its movements have titles like ‘Carol’ and ‘Christmas Dance’ but it is the central ‘Ballad’, the longest part, which really captures the imagination. The next movement, a contrasting ‘Moto pertetuo’, reminded me of the orchestral scherzi, especially that of the 6th Symphony of 1947. This was the only movement, in fact the only moment on the entire disc, when Hong-Mei Xiao’s technique did not seem to quite match the demands of the music. The sense of balance between the orchestra and soloist also seems less clear. Perhaps that is RVW’s fault: the viola is notoriously difficult to balance against the orchestra. (That was one of the reasons why Walton revised his orchestration.)
Tertis also gave the first performance of Bax’s Phantasy for viola and orchestra in his work to accumulate a new repertoire for this often much-maligned instrument. Two things surprised me about the work: its Vaughan Williams-type pentatonic melodies in the opening cadenza and in the atmospheric slow middle section; and the blatant use of Irish melodies including a march tune used by Sinn Féin which slots effortlessly into the finale. This work for me was the real gem of this collection. The phantasy form had been developed, especially by English composers, in the period before the second war largely due to the Cobbett prize. Bax’s piece actually has a three-movement structure but all are connected and only allowed one track by Delos. It begins with the cadenza as mentioned, then a faster, Irish dance idea which develops into something more virtuoso, the sort that creeps into parts of Bax’s symphonic music. There follows a long but gorgeous slow movement and then the exciting finale.
This disc then offers three fine works, well contrasted, recorded and on the whole played with aplomb and clarity by all concerned. I could not help but wonder why Delos have been sitting on it for over three years but I have found it all very enjoyable and I am sure you will too. Gary Higginson