About this Recording
8.111382 - PRIMROSE, William: Recital, Vol. 1 (1939-47)

William Primrose (1904–1982)
Recital • 1 (1927–1947 Recordings)


For almost three decades, from the mid-1930s until his health took a turn for the worse in 1963, William Primrose was regarded as the finest exponent of the viola, the man who took the instrument to new heights of virtuosity and made music on equal terms with such fellow giants as Jascha Heifetz, Emanuel Feuermann, Arthur Rubinstein and Gregor Piatigorsky. Confident and ambitious, Scotland’s finest string player crisscrossed the globe as concerto soloist and chamber musician, continuing the work begun by his English predecessor Lionel Tertis. Having made his reputation on the violin, Primrose campaigned for the viola with the zeal of a convert. Although due credit must be given to Maurice Vieux in France, Paul Hindemith in Germany and Vadim Borisovsky in Russia, he became the face of the viola for two or three generations. No one before him had liberated so many striking colours from the instrument, or played with such consistently glowing tone. He was renowned as a teacher, but simply by his example he encouraged others and helped to raise the standard of viola playing. He inspired or commissioned new pieces, among them Britten’s Lachrymae and the Bartók, Porter, Rubbra, Fricker and Milhaud (Second) Concertos, and further expanded the repertoire through transcriptions and arrangements such as those on this disc. Although he never condescended to his audiences—a recital in the 1954–55 season, with his regular pianist David Stimer, consisted entirely of sonatas by W.F. Bach, Hindemith, Milhaud and Brahms—Primrose lived in an era when soloists were expected to have a large repertoire of short pieces; and in playing such fare he could reveal his tonal and coloristic range. Our programme also includes two pieces played on the violin and recorded in 1927.

Primrose was born on 23 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 Nicolò 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 was drowned when Willie was very young. The lad began violin lessons at four with Camillo Ritter, a pupil of Joachim, Haliř 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 twelve and was able to hear Caruso, Destinn, Elman, Kreisler, Kubelík, Szigeti and Ysaÿe. With Sir Landon Ronald’s help, at 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. Primrose gained most from Eugène 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 30 May 1928 the Scot played the 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 disagreements on viola tone and vibrato, as well as the ideal size of the instrument). Primrose had always felt affection for the viola but Tertis’s huge, warm tone showed him its potential. In the Green Room he told Tertis: ‘I am a disciple of yours from henceforth.’ By 1930 he was playing viola in the London String Quartet, dividing his time between old world and new, as the LSQ was popular in North and South America, but at the end of 1934 the group disbanded. On 27 February 1936 he gave his first performance of Walton’s Viola Concerto, with Beecham for the Royal Philharmonic Society: ‘Well, at least we finished together, dear boy,’ the bearded baronet said, having got lost in the central scherzo. On 5 November that year Primrose made his Berlin Philharmonic début, playing Vaughan Williams’s new Suite in a concert of British music conducted by Leo Borchard. In August 1937 it was announced in the New York press: ‘William Primrose, the English [sic] viola player, has accepted an invitation from the National Broadcasting Company to lead the violas in the new orchestra being formed for Arturo Toscanini’s concerts here, and to broadcast solos.’ Promised the NBC SO principal’s job by Toscanini, Primrose arrived to find that Artur Rodzinski had already hired Carlton Cooley for that chair. So he merely shared the front desk but was able to play the occasional solo. For a few years he organized the Primrose Quartet, with NBC colleagues Oscar Shumsky (later Joseph Fuchs), Josef Gingold and Harvey Shapiro: the group first broadcast on 8 May 1939 (Borodin Quartet in D minor) and made its concert début on 5 November, playing Mozart’s E flat Quintet, K. 614, with William Carboni for the New Friends of Music at Town Hall. ‘New Yorkers have rarely … heard such playing as the Primrose Quartet vouchsafed yesterday,’ reported The New York Times. In 1941 Primrose took a chance and went solo, touring the United States with the tenor Richard Crooks. He recorded with Jascha Heifetz and Emanuel Feuermann, joined the reconstituted LSQ for occasional concerts, and in 1947 appeared in London and at the first Edinburgh Festival with Schnabel, Szigeti and Fournier. He had a long collaboration with Heifetz and Piatigorsky, and during the late 1950s and early 1960s took part in the Festival Quartet, with 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 soloists. 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 1 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 pedagogical 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 divides 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. A few recordings here were made in the interim between these viola phases, when he experimented with a 1945 instrument by William Moennig Jnr and had the use of the ‘Macdonald’ Strad (later heard in the Amadeus Quartet, in the hands of Peter Schidlof), with its fine tone and instantly recognisable diagonal-figured back. At this stage Primrose still had a tenor-oriented sound and could play in quite a lush style, employing much portamento—witness Dvořák’s Largo. 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, the tone more alto than tenor. Hence the divergence with Tertis, who favoured a deep tenor sonority and a wide, Kreisleresque continuous vibrato.

Primrose made his first records, including experimental (but unissued) sides lasting up to nine minutes, by the acoustic process for HMV. After the advent of the microphone in 1925, he made further violin discs for Columbia and a lone one for Decca. His first viola recording, sadly unpublished, came on 7 November 1929: he played obbligato for Feodor Chaliapin in Glinka’s Doubt. In 1930 he more or less laid the violin aside (although he waxed Purcell’s Golden Sonata with Isolde Menges in 1935) and by April 1934 he was recording on viola with the LSQ in America—a disappointing Beethoven A minor Quartet, Op. 132. Back in England, he started making solo viola records the following month, starting with two Paganini Caprices and the Tchaikovsky song arrangement here. In 1935 he took part in the recording of Fritz Kreisler’s A minor Quartet, led by the composer, and set down five viola solos including Kreisler’s Liebesfreud (happy component of a matching pair, the sad one being Liebesleid), Schubert’s Ave Maria, adapted from August Wilhelmj’s popular violin version, and the Londonderry Air. In 1937 Primrose made two major Columbia recordings but then returned to HMV; and thereafter he was mainly attached to this label or its American affiliate Victor, apart from flirtations with Columbia. A number of pieces here are connected with Kreisler: the Allegretto and Praeludium and Allegro were among those the Viennese violinist passed off as being by other composers—in these cases Boccherini and Pugnani—until he was found out in 1935. Kreisler never recorded the ‘Pugnani’, perhaps because it ideally needed two sides—Tertis (who did it twice) made cuts to accommodate it on one side but thanks to a five-minute side length, Primrose managed to get more of the music onto his disc. Massenet wrote Élégie in 1866, as the fifth of his Pièces de Genre for piano, but in 1872 incorporated a muted cello version into incidental music for Leconte de Lisle’s play Les Erinnyes; the vocal version sung here by Marian Anderson came later. Solfeggietto, amazingly articulated by Primrose, was originally the first of three keyboard Solfeggios that Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach wrote in 1766. Primrose came upon it in a 1904 edition published by Schirmer. For Tambourin, an attractive dance from Jean-Philippe Rameau’s opera-ballet Les fêtes d’Hébé, he adjusted Kreisler’s violin transcription to the viola. Australian composer Arthur Benjamin was a friend of Primrose, who was dedicatee of his Viola Sonata and recorded it as well as the Romantic Fantasy for violin, viola and orchestra, written for Tertis. The catchy Jamaican Rumba, second of the Two Jamaican Pieces of 1938, has been arranged for every imaginable instrumental combination. Mattie Rag and Cookie were originally the Jamaican Street Songs for two pianos. The fourth of Benjamin’s gems, From San Domingo, composed around 1945, was produced in various arrangements and Primrose had a hand in the viola version. He recorded it on the same 78rpm side as Cookie, leading many discographers and librarians to invent a composition called Cookie from San Domingo. Saint-Saëns’s Le Cygne first swam on its serene way in The Carnival of the Animals. The dancer Anna Pavlova performed The Dying Swan to it, giving many grateful cellists employment. Primrose’s version appeared on an early 45rpm red vinyl single, coupled with the Caprice by his friend Boris Myronoff which he recorded from the manuscript—it is still unpublished.

Tully Potter

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