Walton brings out both the spectacular virtuosity and poetry of the cello in his Concerto, says the British cellist and conductor
Can you describe Walton's Cello Concerto?
It’s quite traditional really, in three movements. I suppose the untraditional thing about it is the outer movements are rather slow and poetic. All the really fast fireworks happen in the middle movement, a fantastic scherzo that’s very typical of Walton’s inventiveness. If there’s one word that sums up the work for me it is ‘poetic’.
Walton wrote the piece as a paid commission for the cellist Gregor Piatigorsky, but in the end it came out as a highly personal work. Do you feel his affection for the piece comes across?
Yes, although throughout his life Walton was pretty pragmatic and down-to-earth. The Oldham boy never really left him. He was commissioned by Piatigorsky. It’s amazing when you think about it that this was the last of his three Concertos for violin, viola and cello, all of which were associated with the greatest artists of the day – Jascha Heifetz, William Primrose [written for Lionel Tertis, the Viola Concerto was recorded in 1946 by Primrose with Walton conducting], and Gregor Piatigorsky. So I think Walton was shrewd enough to know he could write anything he wanted. Although Piatigorsky wasn’t happy with the ending.
How does the alternative ending compare to the original?
Perhaps Piatigorsky had heard from Heifetz, as they were certainly close colleagues, that Heifetz had asked for the Violin Concerto to be pepped up in terms of technical difficulty. Maybe Piatigorsky thought, well I’ll have some of that as well. The original ending is elegiac and elusive, so perhaps he wanted to end with a bigger bang.
I’ve never played that ending myself, but I’ve seen the score and I’ve heard it in various recordings. It’s quite cheeky actually, as it still has the same mood. When Piatigorsky did see it, although he was too ill to play it in public, I think he must have thought, well there’s not much difference here, is there, William. The original is far preferable. There’s no doubt in my mind.
‘William thought of the cello as a melancholy instrument, full of soul,’ said Walton's wife Susanna. Do you agree?
I do agree with that. But you don’t feel that in the scherzo. In the same, or in a slightly more fiery, way that Elgar does in the scherzo of his Cello Concerto, Walton succeeds in making the cello a rather spectacular, virtuosic concerto instrument. There’s this perennial problem of the cello not having the same cutting power of a violin or a piano, but Walton seems to overcome this brilliantly in his writing. It’s such a sparkling scherzo, and in many ways it’s my favourite movement – well you can’t really pick out a favourite movement – but it works so brilliantly.
The Concerto was written on the Walton's Italian island home of Ischia – do you feel this piece has a Mediterranean soul in any sense?
Yes, I think for me that’s at its strongest in the opening. It’s a miraculous passage in which you get the colours of the vibraphone in this kind of tick-tocking accompaniment that pervades the whole movement. One could get fanciful and imagine the sounds in Walton's garden of crickets, and beautiful noises in the night, and the fact that the sea was very close to him. I think there’s definitely Mediterranean colour in there.
Do you remember this particular performance with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra back in 2005?
I do actually. Like a lot of musicians I’m very self-critical, and I don’t like to go back on performances. But I do remember feeling pretty good about this one, and it was with one my favourite orchestras. At that time, I collaborated with the BBC Scottish SO quite a bit. I really enjoyed it.
You’re a conductor as well as a cellist. Any plans to take up the baton for this Concerto?
I have conducted it, in fact, although not in concert. I did a studio recording two or three years ago with BBC New Generation Artist cellist Danjulo Ishizaka and, funnily enough, the BBC Scottish SO. So I’ve played it with them and conducted with them. I loved it actually. I've been playing cello concertos for a long time and I know the orchestral parts pretty well. Sometimes it's nice to get to do the little details that I've thought of in various performances. It's like being completely in control of a train set!
Interview by Rebecca Franks
Paul Watkins is the soloist in Walton's Cello Concerto on the BBC Music Magazine February 2011 cover CD. The issue is on sale now
Audio clip: Walton: Moderato
Image: Sasha Gusov