Walton Wins Us Over

BBC Symphony and James Ehnes are revelatory on new Chandos CD


My first focused exposure to William Walton’s music was a recording of his early and celebrated Façade, and I was an instant fan. Still, I didn’t diligently seek out all of his works, but surely I encountered his Concerto for Viola and Orchestra at some point—but thanks to this new Chandos Super Audio CD, I feel as though I have experienced the work for the first time. I’ve already been a fan of James Ehnes’ violin playing, up and close and personal, thanks to his multiple appearances with the Madison Symphony; his viola playing here simply expands our respect of his artistry exponentially. Of course, Ehnes is equally popular in many larger cities with more famous orchestras; Madison music lovers are incredibly blessed that he feels so strongly about collaborating with John DeMain and the MSO in the splendid Overture Hall. He was high on DeMain’s list to book for the upcoming 25th season of Maestro and MSO, and will be here next year on February 15-17 as soloist in the Brahms Violin Concerto.

But back to the matter at hand: the level of mastery Ehnes has demonstrated in his violin playing makes us feel that we should not be so surprised that he sounds here in Walton’s concerto for the slightly larger cousin of the fiddle equally at home. Still, there are oodles of great violinists who have no interest (or reason) to tackle the viola, let alone in one of the most famous concertos written for it. Ehnes not only meets the challenge squarely, he sounds as though he owns this work.

The 1928 work (heard here in the usual 1961 revision) is a fascinating one: the outer movements of its three divisions each contain at least six tempo markings. Ehnes captures every mood with complete naturalness—and surely it would not sound so easy if conductor Edward Gardner and the BBC Symphony were not the soloist’s interpretive match. As has been the case for many years, the engineers and production team for Chandos have created a flawless disc.

The second work is the Sonata for String Orchestra; with a date of 1971 it would appear to be a late work, but it is a considerable revision of the composer’s 1947 String Quartet in A Minor (the composer Malcolm Arnold aided the final stages of the revision significantly). Upon the first traversal of the disc, this work was underestimated by yours truly—but further hearings (particularly after a careful reading of the fine booklet annotations by Anthony Burton) revealed its subtle attractions.

In some ways (Ehnes notwithstanding!), the best comes last, in the compact and compelling Partita for Orchestra. If for any reason you have a preconception of Walton as a reliably staid, if pleasant English composer, this 1957 work will blow away that idea in about thirty seconds (of course that would also mean you’ve never heard Façade!). The Partita is brilliantly orchestrated and a consummately crafted work that just might make me start a campaign to see it programmed in Madison. The more immediate outcome is that, combined with Ehnes’ standard-setting reading of the concerto, I can’t wait to hear more Walton, not to mention more of anything recorded by Gardner and the BBC. Of course, I still have to pry myself away from this CD first…

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