About this Recording
8.111383 - PRIMROSE, William: Recital, Vol. 2 (1939-1952)

William Primrose (1904–1982)
Recital • 2 (1934–1952 Recordings)


This second volume of pieces played by the legendary Scots violist William Primrose is notable for including two major works written for him. He inspired or commissioned quite a few 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. Primrose enjoyed playing short pieces such as Jamaican Rumba by the Australian-born Arthur Benjamin; and when he asked Benjamin for a more substantial work he was rewarded with a splendid triptych for viola and piano, originally known as Elegy, Waltz and Toccata but later retitled Sonata for Viola and Piano. ‘It is such a brilliant work,’ Primrose told his friend and amanuensis David Dalton, ‘that I suggested to the composer that it was up on the concerto level so far as virtuosity is concerned, and asked why didn’t he score it for viola and orchestra? He did just that, and it was an utter failure. He stressed too much the use of clarinets and horns, and this is not good for the viola because those instruments tend to have a similar tone colour, play in a somewhat similar register, and can obscure the viola.’ Fortunately Primrose recorded the piano-accompanied version with an excellent partner, New York-born Vladimir ‘Billy’ Sokoloff (1913–97). He had even better luck when he got to know the American composer Roy Harris in 1938 and solicited a work from him, receiving the Soliloquy and Dance recorded here and later the Elegy and Paean for viola and orchestra—though neither diptych was actually dedicated to him. The Harris performance (issued with the Benjamin as a 78rpm set) has the additional attraction of featuring the composer’s wife Johana, a committed interpreter of her husband’s music and an occasional recital partner to Primrose.

The great violist 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 Niccolò Gagliano in his early career as a violinist. There was music on his mother’s side, too: her brother Samuel Whiteside was a distinguished Glaswegian violinist and multi-instrumentalist; but sadly he was drowned when Willie was very young. The lad began violin lessons at four with Camillo Ritter, a pupil of Joachim, Halíř and Ševčík, and would have studied with the last, had it not been for World War I. He was playing in public at the age of 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: in December 1922 he played two movements of the Elgar Concerto at Queen’s Hall, with the student orchestra conducted by Ronald. His official début came at the same hall on 5 June 1923—Lalo’s Symphonie espagnole and Elgar’s full Concerto played on the borrowed ‘Betts’ Strad, with Ronald conducting his Royal Albert Hall Orchestra—and he made his Wigmore Hall recital début on the 26th. The following month he played before the King and Queen; and on 7 December he made his first record. Having graduated in 1924 with the gold medal, Primrose steadily advanced. On 11 March 1925 came his first broadcast, from Birmingham, and in the mid-1920s he appeared with the pianist-composers John Ireland and York Bowen in their own music, as well as giving recitals with such pianists as Solomon, Gordon Bryan, Hamilton Harty and his compatriots Rae Robertson and Frederic Lamond. His broadcasts included the Bach solo works, Corelli sonatas ‘given in the original style’ with just Ambrose Gauntlett’s cello for accompaniment, and a Kreisler series. He 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 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. For a time Primrose kept up the violin but from 1935—when he played the ‘Handel’ Concerto (really by Henri Casadesus) with Beecham and the London Philharmonic Orchestra at Queen’s Hall and the Sinfonia concertante with Jean Pougnet and the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Henry Wood for his Prom début—all his concerto appearances featured the viola. On 27 February 1936 he gave his first performance of the Walton 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 Symphony Orchestra principal’s job by Toscanini, Primrose arrived to find that Artur Rodzinski had already hired Carlton Cooley. 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 Symphony Orchestra colleagues Oscar Shumsky (later Joseph Fuchs), Josef Gingold and Harvey Shapiro: the group first broadcast on 8 May 1939 (Borodin D minor) and made its concert début on 5 November, playing Mozart’s E flat Quintet, K614, 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 London String Quartet 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. 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, Kreisler-esque continuous vibrato.

This programme includes four Paganini Caprices—recordings which did more than any others to spread Primrose’s fame among his peers. It is a pity that No. 24 is played with piano: rather than helping, the accompaniment is inclined to encourage the soloist to break into a jogtrot in some variations, a trap not altogether avoided by Primrose. In No. 13, ‘La risata’ (The Laugh), he creates a fine Italianate effect, with a scintillating faster section. He omits the opening scalar flourishes in No. 5 but executes the saltato bowing brilliantly, adding a new ending in double-stopped chromatic thirds. No. 17 suffers from an intrusive piano accompaniment but has all the virtues of his Paganini playing: superb bowing, good intonation, cleanliness of attack. The two Handel duets present vivid contrasts, reflecting the divergent characters of Primrose’s partners. The Adagio, recorded with Albert Spalding’s regular accompanist André Benoist as a filler for Mozart’s Sinfonia concertante, is a model of collaboration, the gentlemanly Spalding accommodating his lovely tone and phrasing to Primrose’s. The Passacaglia is at once a performance of higher pressure, with the competitive virtuosi Heifetz and Primrose matching precision and filigree delicacy. The Bach aria, Brahms chorale prelude and Schubert song transcription pair Primrose with Vernon de Tar (1905–99), longtime organist at the Episcopal Church of the Ascension: the boomy church acoustic cannot conceal the violist’s fine phrasing, or the radiant effect when he moves into the higher register in the Bach (a Tertis favourite). The organ can sustain its little interludes in the Schubert better than a piano. Another congenial partnership is that with the great American contralto Marian Anderson and her regular pianist Franz Rupp. The Victor studio team give the artists every encouragement to phrase opulently in the first of Brahms’s Op. 91 songs, allotting them two 12-inch sides. The shorter second song is also beautifully done, with tender phrasing from all three.

Tully Potter

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