About this Recording
8.110316 - BERLIOZ: Harold in Italy / WALTON: Viola Concerto (1946) (Primrose)

Great Violists • William Primrose
Berlioz • Walton • Casadesus

he other day the pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim, talking about his late wife Jacqueline du Pré, described her as the first British string soloist of any consequence. Yet the Englishman Lionel Tertis (1876-1975) is regarded by professionals all over the world as the father of modern viola playing; and those same experts would rate his characterful successor William Primrose as the finest violist of the twentieth century. This confident Scotsman travelled all over the world, as soloist and chamber musician, and played on equal terms with the greatest musicians of his time. He was also renowned as a teacher. Primrose campaigned for the viola with the zeal of a convert, as it was on the violin that he made his early reputation.

William Primrose was born on 23rd August 1904 in Glasgow, the son of John Primrose, orchestral violinist and violist and connoisseur of string playing and instruments – Willie (or Bill as he became known) used his father’s 1735 Niccolo Gagliano in his early career. There was music on his mother’s side, too: her brother Samuel Whiteside was a distinguished Glaswegian violinist who played several other instruments; but sadly he drowned when Willie was very young. The boy began violin lessons at four with Camillo Ritter, a pupil of Joachim, Halir and Ševčík, and would have gone on to study with the latter, had it not been for World War I. He was playing in public at the age of twelve and was able to hear such musicians as Caruso, Destinn, Elman, Kreisler, Kubelík, Szigeti and Ysaÿe. With Sir Landon Ronald’s help, when he was fifteen he entered the Guildhall School of Music in London, where he studied with the Dutch player Max Mossel, graduating in 1924 with the gold medal. Meanwhile he made his Queen’s Hall début with Ronald conducting in June 1923, playing Lalo’s Symphonie espagnole and Elgar’s Concerto on the borrowed ‘Betts’ Strad. He also made his first records, including experimental (but unissued) HMV discs with sides lasting up to nine minutes.

Primrose gained most from Ysaÿe, with whom he spent several summers at Le Zoute from 1926, and it was the Belgian master who suggested he turn to the viola. On 30th May 1928 he played Mozart’s Sinfonia concertante at a Mozart festival in Paris with the 52- year-old Tertis. This performance at the Grande Salle Pleyel, with the Lamoureux Orchestra under Sir Thomas Beecham, was the crucial event in Primrose’s career (although subsequently he would skate over the Tertis connection, because of their basic disagreements on viola tone and vibrato, as well as the ideal size of the instrument). Primrose had always felt an affection for the viola but Tertis’s huge, warm tone showed him its potential. In the Green Room afterwards, he told Tertis: ‘I am a disciple of yours from henceforth’. By 1930 he was playing viola in the London String Quartet and by 1934 he was making solo viola records, starting with two Paganini Caprices. In 1935 he took part in the recording of Kreisler’s A minor Quartet, led by the composer. On 5th November 1936 he made his Berlin Philharmonic début, playing Vaughan Williams’s new Suite in a concert of British music conducted by Leo Borchard. He joined Toscanini’s NBC Symphony Orchestra in New York in 1937 as co-principal viola and for a few years organized the Primrose Quartet, with NBC colleagues Oscar Shumsky (later Henry Fuchs), Josef Gingold and Harvey Shapiro. In 1941 he took a chance and went solo, touring the United States with the tenor Richard Crooks. He recorded with Jascha Heifetz and Emanuel Feuermann, and in 1947 he appeared in London and at the first Edinburgh Festival with Schnabel, Szigeti and Fournier. He then had a long collaboration with Heifetz and Gregor Piatigorsky; and during the late 1950s and early 1960s he took part in the Festival Quartet, with the violinist Szymon Goldberg, cellist Nikolai Graudan and pianist Victor Babin. For one season he played in the Griller Quartet. Until a heart attack in 1963 forced him to curtail his activities, he was the undisputed king of viola concerto soloists. Among the works he inspired or commissioned were Britten’s Lachrymae and the Bartók, Porter, Rubbra, Fricker and Milhaud (Second) Concertos. In private life he enjoyed billiards, cricket and swimming. He was made CBE in 1953. After a long illness he died in Provo, Utah, on 1st May 1982. Primrose taught at the universities of Southern California (1961-65) and Indiana (1965-72) and concentrated on teaching in his last years, when his health and hearing were impaired. He left much teaching material, such as the Yehudi Menuhin Music Guide to the Violin and Viola (1976) and Playing the Viola (1988). He wrote a readable autobiography, Walk on the North Side (1978).

Primrose was the first really modern violist. His technique was such that he could play virtually anything at sight – on a rare occasion when he was defeated, he worked all night at the piece and presented himself next morning, fully in command. His career can be seen as dividing into three periods, the violin phase, the first viola phase, lasting until just after World War II, in which he played his father’s Brothers Amati with its warm, deep, tenor-ish sonority, and the second viola phase from 1954, when he switched to the slightly bigger but more alto-sounding ‘Lord Harrington’ Andrea Guarneri and was unduly influenced by Heifetz. The recordings on this CD were made in the interim between these viola phases, when he was experimenting with a 1945 instrument by William Moennig Jnr and had the use of the ‘Macdonald’ Strad, one of the few good violas by that maker, with its fine tone and instantly recognisable diagonal-figured back (it was later heard in the Amadeus Quartet, in the hands of Peter Schidlof). At this stage Primrose still had a tenororiented sound and could play in quite a lush style when he wished. Later he concentrated on dexterity: his playing remained colourful but his vibrato, always on the fast side for a violist, seemed more intense than ever and the tone more alto than tenor. Hence the divergence with Tertis, who favoured a deep tenor tone and a wide, Kreisleresque continuous vibrato.

The first concerto here was thought to be by Handel when Primrose made this, the second of his two recordings. It is, in fact, a modern forgery by Henri Casadesus (who also wrote a ‘J.C. Bach’ viola concerto). A jolly piece, it displayed Primrose’s easy articulation and rhythmic flair, and he always made an effect with it in concert. Two years before this New York session, he toured Britain and played the ‘Handel’ in Bournemouth, where the fifteen-year-old violinist James Durrant was in the audience. ‘When I heard Primrose, that was it,’ recalled Durrant, who immediately took up the viola and later moved to Glasgow to become Scotland’s foremost violist of the late twentieth century. In the Victor studio Frieder Weissmann, a German émigré best remembered for marrying the soprano Meta Seinemeyer on her deathbed, does not quite match the vigour of Walter Goehr on Primrose’s earlier Columbia version, but the orchestral playing is more polished and the soloist’s tone is shown to better effect. Primrose plays the slow movement most eloquently. To the Walton, earliest and best of the composer’s three concertos, Primrose brought a new dimension of virtuosity. Walton had made a still unsurpassed recording with Frederick Riddle eight years earlier but could not raise his own rather moderate game to that of his 1946 soloist. Still, the performance has many marvellous moments, not least from the Philharmonia wind soloists, and Walton does better than Beecham, who during Primrose’s first airing of the Concerto, for the Royal Philharmonic Society in 1936, got lost in the central scherzo. ‘Well, at least we finished together, dear boy,’ was all Sir Thomas had to say. Finally we have Berlioz’s Harold in Italy, which Primrose recorded twice live with Toscanini and in the studio with Beecham and Munch. This version with Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony was well rehearsed, as it was made after a short tour; and the violist was using the ‘Macdonald’ Strad. Primrose the perfectionist was unhappy with the conductor’s tempo changes, such as the accelerando before the viola’s first entry; but most aficionados find the interpretation riveting. The orchestra, still full of French players at that time, plays beautifully, Koussevitzky’s conducting is exciting and the sound achieved by the engineers has tremendous depth for its era.

Tully Potter

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