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William WALTON (1902-1983)

Concerto for violin and orchestra (1939) [31:59]
Karl Amadeus HARTMANN (1905-1963)
Concerto funčbre (Funereal Concerto) for violin and string orchestra (1939, rev 1959) [21:00]
Béla BARTÓK (1881-1945)
Violin Concerto No.2 in B major, Sz.112 (1939) [38:25]
Fabiola Kim (violin), Münchner Symphoniker / Kevin John Edusei
rec. 2018-2019, Bavaria Musikstudios, Munich
SOLO MUSICA SM308 [53:15+38:25]

Europe had been in great turmoil for some years. Recently, there had been the Spanish Civil War, the invasion of Austria and the annexation of the Sudetenland. But this was finally it: the 1st September 1939 was the ‘official’ start of World War II. This new two-CD set explores diverse violin concertos by William Walton, Karl Amadeus Hartmann and Bela Bartók, all written, completed or premiered in that momentous year.

I was unable to find any indication as to which version of William Walton’s Concerto for violin and orchestra is played here. Is it the original 1939 version or the revision that the composer made in 1943? This reduced the size of the percussion section. I know that it is the revised version played here, but it would be helpful to be told. (I may have missed it somewhere deep in the text of the liner notes).

This Concerto (1938-39) was specifically written for Jascha Heifetz (1901-87). However, Walton did have an eye on the 1939 World Fair in New York, and the British contribution to that event.  The story of his failure to complete his Violin Concerto on time and the problems as to who the soloist should be, makes a major essay. This has been detailed in Battle for Music: Music and British Wartime Propaganda 1935-1945 by John Vincent Morris (Exeter University Thesis, 2011).

The first performance was at the Severance Hall, Cleveland, Ohio on 7th December 1939 with Heifetz and the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra conducted by Artur Rodzinski. The London premičre took place at the Royal Albert Hall on 1st November 1941 with the violinist Henry Holst and the composer conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra.

There are currently 29 versions (or re-packagings) of this concerto listed in the Arkiv Catalogue: I have heard several of them, but by no means all. The first version of this work that I bought in the 1970s, was the Menuhin/Walton/ London Symphony Orchestra, LP (HMV ASD2542, 1970), followed 15 years later with the Kennedy/Previn/Royal Philharmonic recording on CD (EMI CDC 49628 2, 1987). And then there is Heifetz’s, the dedicatee’s 1941 recording released on Naxos 8.110939 in 2001, which bounces along a wee bit too much for me.

My touchstone for this concerto is ‘Mediterranean warmth’ and ‘romance’ as inspired by Walton’s lover Alice Wimborne. I want my heart broken by the ‘big tune’ in the final movement. It is one of the most beautiful moments in the literature of British music. Kennedy does it for me; Menuhin doesn’t quite make it. Fabiola Kim gets it to near-perfection. Generally, her interpretation needs to be just a little touch more ‘sultry’ and ‘bluer’ reflecting the Tyrrhenian Sea visible from Ravello on the Amalfi Coast. This is where Walton wrote most of this Concerto in the days before war broke out.

The Violin Concerto No.2 in B major, Sz.112 by Béla Bartók has largely passed me by. It is my loss. I do know, however, that it is one of the most important works from the composer’s pen from the immediate pre-Second World War period. It was composed at time when Bartók was desperately worried by the development of fascism in Europe. His place in Hungary was not secure and he suffered considerable trouble with the political elite there. In 1940 he would become an exile in the United States. The Concerto was commissioned by the violinist Zoltán Székely. The story goes that Bartók wished to write the work as a set of extended variations, however, Székely demanded that he follow the ‘traditional’ formal structure of a classical concerto. All well and good, however, Bartók later conceded that despite the apparent fast/slow/fast movements, he had contrived to carry out his initial plan: the middle movement is a set of variations and the final movement is a ‘free variation’ on the first movement.

The sound world of this work is an effective balance between dissonance and lyricism. Once again, the liner notes do not state whether this recording includes the revised or original ending of the final movement. Bartók had originally concluded the work with an ‘extended passage’ for orchestra only. When Zoltán Székely saw this, he insisted on a big finish for the violin soloist. It is this version that is heard here. I found that Fabiola Kim has emphasised the lyrical nature of this concerto. This is not at the expense of some of the more dramatic and exuberant moments of this work. Kim copes well with the folk-music inspired first movement but also including a 12-note ‘melody’ and the sophisticated set of variations forming the second movement. Both sound worlds are fused into a complex but satisfying finale. Béla Bartók’s second violin concerto was first performed on 23rd March 1939 in Amsterdam with the Concertgebouw Orchestra conducted by Willem Mengelberg with Székely as soloist.

I do not know if Kim’s performance of Karl Amadeus Hartmann’s Concerto Funčbre (Funereal Concerto) for violin and string orchestra is given from the original 1939 version or the substantial revision made in 1959. I am guessing that it is the later version, but the liner notes do not make this clear.

What Hartmann has done is to compose a lament or requiem for the whole continent of Europe. The germinal thought behind this concerto is the occupation of parts of Czechoslovakia by the Germans. The rise of fascism was inexorable. The work opens with a quotation of the ‘Hussite Song’, previously heard in Smetana’s Ma Vlast and Dvorak’s Hussite Overture. Stylistically, Hartmann’s concerto displays a diverse musical character: a post-romantic mood in the second movement ‘adagio’, the motoric ferocity of the third movement ‘allegro di molto and the sustained choral of the ‘finalé.’

The liner notes by Thomas Otto give a good overview of all three concertos and their composers as well as setting these works in context. There is a long bio of Fabiola Kim and a slightly shorter one about the conductor Kevin John Edusei and the Münchner Symphoniker. They are given in English and German.

This is a splendid introduction to three important works and composers who were active at a time of great crisis in Europe and later the entire world. Three different perspectives are given here: Walton’s romantic sunshine, almost oblivious to the coming catastrophe, Bartók’s reminiscences of a world that was passing (or had passed), and Hartmann threnody for the pain and suffering that was to begin in 1939 and continue for six years. The mood ranges from optimism to deep pessimism. It is as it should have been.

John France

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