WILLIAM PRIMROSE (1904 - 1982)
As the son of a violin teacher, William Primrose had a childhood filled with music. His father John Primrose started his son’s lessons at the age of four with Austrian Camillo Ritter (a Joachim pupil). William spent hours at concerts in Glasgow and on the Isle of Man, observing the Scottish Orchestra and attending performances by Enrico Caruso as well as those by leading violinists including Ysaÿe, Kubelík, Elman, Kreisler and Szigeti.
When he was fifteen the family moved to London and Primrose took up a place at the Guildhall School of Music where he found the tuition somewhat basic; yearning for more challenging study he spent many of his lessons reading a volume of concertos edited by Joachim. Soon after graduating, whilst working as a violinist, his playing began to falter and he went to Belgium to study with Ysaÿe who encouraged him to switch to the viola, an ambition he had held since trying his father’s instrument as a child. He made the move completely when he joined the London String Quartet as violist in 1930, an epiphany which he described as ‘seeing the light’. When the quartet disbanded, affected by the 1935 depression, Primrose made a living by accepting any work he could obtain, including appearances in Milan and Berlin. There was also a memorable performance of the Walton Concerto with the Royal Philharmonic Society under Beecham: it was under-rehearsed and Beecham lost his place in the Scherzo, going into what Primrose called his ‘fencing act’!
In 1937, invited to join the NBC Orchestra formed as a vehicle for conductor Arturo Toscanini, Primrose accepted in order to gain experience of orchestral playing. In 1939 the NBC suggested he form the Primrose Quartet and he readily agreed. He resigned from the orchestra in 1941 and toured with tenor Richard Crooks; this led to Arthur Judson, an influential concert manager, taking him on and Primrose was launched as a soloist. Throughout his performing career he continued with chamber music, playing with the Festival Piano Quartet, the Heifetz–Primrose–Feuermann Trio, the Heifetz–Primrose–Piatigorsky Trio and the Schnabel-Szigeti-Primrose-Fournier Piano Quartet.
In addition to performing Primrose taught extensively at summer schools as well as in the institutions where he held teaching posts. He also wrote or contributed to four important pedagogical publications: Art and Practice of Scale Playing (1954), Technique Is Memory (1960), Violin and Viola (with Yehudi Menuhin and Denis Stevens, 1976) and Playing the Viola (1988).
A hearing problem which developed in 1946 affected Primrose’s performing activities, but he continued private lessons and coaching chamber music until his death in 1982. In 1974 he donated his collection of scores and memorabilia to Brigham Young University, establishing the Primrose International Viola Archive as a ‘resource centre for students, violists and scholars’. The archive has since been augmented with other donations, including a large collection of scores used by violist Ernst Wallfisch.
William Primrose’s superlative reputation mid-century was based upon a number of significant recordings; in all of them one hears his depth and concentration of sound (in spite of the often primitive recording technology). He used relatively little portamento even in some of his earliest recordings, suggesting, perhaps, a modernity of outlook. His almost continuous vibrato corroborates this, although it is rather tighter and more intense than has become fashionable latterly. Some interpretations are quite steady by the standards of the time, such as his 1946 Brahms Op. 120 No. 1 or the Bax Viola Sonata (1937); the latter is significantly slower in all movements than the Bax-Tertis performance. This is not to say that Primrose’s playing is unexciting: the Bloch Suite in his 1956 recording has some extraordinary variety of colour and texture, amply demonstrated by the extended first movement which, after a slightly routine start, moves into a tight and inspiring allegro. Similar pictorial vividness inhabits his Berlioz Harold en Italie under Koussevitzky (1944—one of four recordings he made of this work), whilst Walton’s Viola Concerto under the composer’s baton in 1946 is somewhat faster than many subsequent renditions, imbuing it with a sense of forward movement, with great precision of tone and attack.
Primrose recorded Mozart’s Sinfonia concertante twice, although the earlier recording with Albert Spalding is perhaps less famous than the performance with Heifetz. Certainly, from a modern perspective, the Spalding recording is less precise technically, making the Heifetz recording, in which both soloists match tone and approach remarkably closely, the better rendition overall.
In terms of his assured technique Primrose certainly was a modernist and one of the most impressive instances of this is his groundbreaking 1934 recording of Paganini’s Caprice No. 5 in his own arrangement. The rifle-bolt regularity of the opening material is immediately impressive. This and numerous other arrangements and transcriptions were added to the repertoire by Primrose in order—as he mischievously wrote—to elevate the viola from its status as the ‘dull dog of the string family’.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Milsom (A–Z of String Players, Naxos 8.558081-84)