Walton: Viola Concerto (SACD review)

Also, Partita for Orchestra; Sonata for String Orchestra. James Ehnes, viola; Edward Gardner, BBC Symphony Orchestra. Chandos CHSA 5210.

Welcome today a guest reviewer, Karl W. Nehring. For over 20 years Karl was the editor of "The $ensible Sound" magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I hope he'll become a regular contributor to "Classical Candor" as well, and I have asked him to give us a little background on his approach to music reviewing. This is what he had to say:

"Thanks, John, for the invitation to contribute to 'Classical Candor,' a truly enjoyable and highly reliable guide to classical music recordings. I will try my best not to diminish your achievement! I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, 'classical' especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me – point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, as of right now it comprises an Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio High Current preamplifier, AVA FET Valve 550hc or Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer." 

Sir William Walton (1902-1983) was a prolific British composer of symphonies (but only two), concerti, and film scores who seems to have been largely overshadowed by other Brits such as Vaughan Williams, Elgar, Britten, and Holst. Indeed, although I have a fair number of recordings of Walton's music in my CD collection, I must confess that I seldom play any of them – yes, when I am in the mood for some British music (which happens often), I am much more likely to play the music of Vaughan Williams, Arnold, Elgar, Britten, Holst, Finzi, Delius, et al.

Because I am such a big fan of British music, when I came across this new Chandos release at my favorite library, I dutifully plucked it from the rack, mostly curious about Walton's Viola Concerto, which I could not recall ever having heard before. Looking at the back cover, I was surprised to see that the piece was first composed in 1928-29 and then revised in 1936-37 and then yet again in 1961. Digging into the liner notes while still standing around at the library, I discovered that Walton composed the piece at the suggestion of the conductor Thomas Beecham. It was targeted for viola virtuoso Lionel Tertis, who declined to play it because it sounded too modern for his sensibilities. Interestingly enough, it was none other than the composer Paul Hindemith (also a violist) who then took up the score and gave the premier performance in 1929.

James Ehnes
Having read a little about the piece I was frankly not expecting to be all that impressed, but still, I was curious enough to check the disc out, bring it home, and fire it up. (My remarks below are based on listening to the two-channel CD layer of this Chandos SACD.)

From the opening notes, I was immediately entranced. Ehnes's viola just seems to sing above the sensitive accompaniment of the orchestra. The overall mood of the opening movement is thoughtful, but there are moments of energy counterbalanced by moments of quiet introspection, with the sound of the viola at times being augmented by the woodwinds. The second movement is more lively and energetic, with more input from the brass section of the orchestra. The third movement returns to a more thoughtful, sometimes introspective mood, ending with a satisfyingly tranquil conclusion.

The other two pieces in this program also proved to be quite satisfying. The Sonata for String Orchestra is a transcription made by Walton and Malcolm Arnold of Walton's String Quartet in A minor. It is a lyrical piece, quite enjoyable. Hearing it has made me want to track down the original quartet version.

The program closes with the Partita for Orchestra, composed in 1957 and dedicated to George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra. As you might expect, it is a more flamboyant piece, leaping out of the gate with a burst of energy and at times producing bass sounds that will give your woofers a workout.

The sound quality of the recording is warm and clean in the Chandos tradition. Overall, then, this release is a winner both musically and sonically that should bring enjoyment to many a listener.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click below:

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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

Contact Information

Readers with polite, courteous, helpful letters may send them to pucciojj@gmail.com.

Readers with impolite, discourteous, bitchy, whining, complaining, nasty, mean-spirited, unhelpful letters may send them to pucciojj@recycle.bin.

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa