About this Recording
8.554325 - WALTON: Violin Concerto / Cello Concerto

William Walton (1902-1983)
Concerto for Cello and Orchestra; Concerto for Violin and Orchestra

William Walton occupies his own position in English music of the twentieth century, chronologically between the generation of Gustav Holst and Vaughan Williams and that of Benjamin Britten. Born in Oldham in 1902, the son of a local singing teacher and choirmaster, he became a chorister at Christ Church, Oxford, and followed this with admission to the university at the early age of sixteen, with support from the college. His Oxford career brought success in music but failure in the necessary academic tests to allow him a degree. At the same time his friendship with Sacheverell Sitwell led to his adoption by the three Sitwell children, Osbert, Edith and Sacheverell, as an honorary brother. The practical help of the Sitwells and the musical and cultural influences of their circle allowed him to devote his attention to composition in the years after he left Oxford, followed by increasing independence, as he won a wider reputation for himself and a satisfactory income from music for the cinema and from a generous bequest by Mrs Samuel Courtauld. In the years after 1945 he was to some extent eclipsed by Britten, whose facility he lacked and whose contemporary achievement now seemed to go beyond Walton's successes of the 1930s. His marriage in 1948 to Susana Gil Passo, whom he had met in Buenos Aires at a conference of the Performing Rights Society, was followed by a move to the island of Ischia in the Bay of Naples, continuing an association with Italy that had started in the early days of his friendship with the Sitwells and had continued in subsequent years. He died there in March 1983.

In the years between the wars Walton won a succès de scandale with Façade, a collaboration with Edith Sitwell that amused the cognoscenti and shocked wider audiences, before winning an assured if minor position in twentieth century repertoire in its final form, whether as a ballet or in the concert-hall. His dramatic oratorio Belshazzar's Feast, with a text derived by Osbert Sitwell from the Bible, first performed at the Leeds Festival in 1931, was a significant addition to choral repertoire, while the Viola Concerto of 1929 marks a height of lyrical achievement and holds a central place in the viola concerto repertoire. The first of his two symphonies was eventually completed in 1935 and his Violin Concerto four years later. The popular film music of the war years was followed after the war by the operas Troilus and Cressida and the one-act Chekhov extravaganza, The Bear, as well as the Hindemith Variations, Improvisations on an Impromptu by Benjamin Britten and the Cello Concerto and Second Symphony.

Walton wrote his Cello Concerto, a work that he regarded as the best of his three solo concertos, in 1956 in response to a commission from Gregor Piatigorsky. He provided two new endings for the work, after Piatigorsky reported the reservations of Jascha Heifetz, but in the event the original ending was kept when the work was first performed in Boston in January 1957, followed by a performance in London in the following month. In 1975 he provided Piatigorsky with another ending but any performance of this version was prevented by the latter's illness and death. Critical reaction in London was mixed and in some cases distinctly hostile, as a place was sought for contemporary music of another kind. The lyrical first movement allows the soloist a long-spun theme, at first over the plucked notes of the strings. A secondary theme, marked a tempo tranquillo, offers a descending pattern of semi-quavers, against the recurrent opening motif, leading to the eventual return of the principal theme over a repeated flute and oboe accompaniment. The following Allegro appassionato, a scherzo, relaxes briefly into a more lyrical trio that interrupts the headlong course of the music. The concerto ends with a theme and four improvisations. After the slow opening melody the cello leads into a first variation coloured by the use of harp, vibraphone and celesta. The second is for cello alone, marked Risoluto tempo giusto. brioso, to be followed by a fierce Allegro molto. The rhapsodic fourth variation, for cello alone, ends in trills that introduce the final section, with reminiscences of the first movement and the return of the theme.

Walton completed his Violin Concerto early in 1939, much of it written during a stay in Italy with Alice Wimbome, who had largely replaced the Sitwells for him. The work had been commissioned by Heifetz, who gave the first performance in Cleveland, Ohio, in December that year. The first London performance was given in the Royal Albert Hall in November 1941, with Henry Holst as the soloist.

There is a lyrical first theme, marked sognando (dreaming), a direction also used in the Viola Concerto. A secondary theme is introduced by flute and strings, with a thematic development of the principal theme that brings a sudden acceleration in its virtuoso violin-­writing, a cadenza and a final recapitulation of the principal melody, with a brief reminiscence of the secondary theme. The second scherzo movement, Presto capriccioso alla napolitana, seems expressly designed for Heifetz in its technical demands. The intermittent Neapolitan tarantella rhythm, suggested by the bite of a tarantula that Walton had suffered, relaxes into a Canzonetta, a necessarily contrasting Trio, introduced by the French horn, before the virtuoso scherzo returns, with its own contrasted themes. The rondo finale is opened by the lower strings, joined by the bassoons and clarinets in a march-like theme that is to recur, soon joined by the soloist. A strongly lyrical theme intervenes and there is a continuing contrast between the two elements in what follows. A double-­stopped reminiscence of the principal theme of the first movement leads to an accompanied cadenza and a final Alla Marcia.

Keith Anderson

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