About this Recording
8.554646 - WALTON: String Quartet / Piano Quartet

William Walton (1902-1983)

String Quartet in A minor • Piano Quartet in D minor

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's first String Quartet, written at Oxford principally in 1919 but later revised, had proved disappointing and was not well received at the 1923 meeting of the International Society for Contemporary Music in Salzburg. By 1939 he was considering another quartet, but it was only after the war and distracting work on film scores that he returned to the idea. The String Quartet in A minor, transcribed in 1971, with the help of Malcolm Arnold, as Sonata for Strings, was written between 1945 and 1947 and first performed and broadcast in May 1947 by the Blech Quartet. The work was dedicated to the conductor Ernest Irving.

The first movement of the quartet is in sonata form, with a first theme heard initially from the viola before being taken up by the second violin. A harsher transition leads to a secondary theme, before a development that includes a fugue, initiated by the viola, followed by the second violin, cello and first violin. The material of the exposition returns, duly modified, in recapitulation. The second movement, a thematically related scherzo of angular character, is impelled forward by a repeated rhythm, to be followed by a moving Lento, in which the muted viola offers a strongly felt meditation, leading to a second viola theme, accompanied by the plucked notes of the cello, a melody then taken up by the first violin. The mood changes with the brusque opening of the last movement, a rondo that, in one contrasting episode, again allows the viola a moving moment of lyricism, in writing from which the Viola Concerto is never far away.

Walton wrote his Piano Quartet in 1918 and 1919, revising it in 1921 before its first publication in 1924. He revised the work again some fifty years later. The quartet was dedicated to the Right Reverend Thomas Banks Strong, Bishop of Ripon, who had been Dean of Christ Church while Walton was in the choir school there and had done much to encourage him, admitting him to the college as an undergraduate and providing from the funds available to him the necessary financial support. The first public performance seems to have been given in London in 1929.

Over sustained cello notes the first violin announces the modal principal theme of the first movement, an element that is to recur, in one form or another, before the entry of the viola and then of the piano. The movement is broadly in sonata form, with secondary material introduced by the viola. There are echoes of Ravel in the texture of what follows and of distinguished English contemporaries, notably Vaughan Williams or even Elgar in what follows. The spiky rhythms of the scherzo lead to fugal treatments of a derivative of the principal theme of the first movement and a triumphant secondary theme. The Andante tranquillo unwinds with muted strings. The moving principal theme emerges, with its echoes of Ravel, to be taken over by the cello accompanied by rippling arpeggiated piano chords. The viola introduces further material, taken up by the other strings, as the movement slowly proceeds towards a whispered close. Harsh rhythms break the mood with the start of the final Allegro molto, with its ever clearer thematic echoes of the first movement. There is a lyrical secondary theme announced first by the cello and entrusted to the viola in recapitulation, while the central development allows the strings to embark on a fugue with an extended subject. The quartet ends with an emphatic coda.

Keith Anderson

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