Walton: Viola Concerto (1961 version); Sonata for String Orchestra (arr. Walton/Arnold); Partita

James Ehnes; BBC Symphony Orchestra/Edward Gardner (Chandos)

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Walton Viola Concerto (1961 version); Sonata for String Orchestra (arr. Walton/Arnold); Partita
James Ehnes (viola); BBC Symphony Orchestra/Edward Gardner
Chandos CHSA 5210 (hybrid CD/SACD) 65:50 mins

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Not so long ago, it was far from usual for a solo violinist to switch to solo viola in sizeable concerto parts. Today’s string-playing generation operates at such a stellar technical standard that this kind of double-act is no longer surprising. James Ehnes, long established as one of the world’s leading violinists, doesn’t offer the same hefty, almost cello-like weight of tone on the viola as some of his specialist colleagues. Then again, the solo part in Walton’s Concerto doesn’t at all presuppose this quality; and while Ehnes’s tone on the lower strings is sometimes a touch dry, this is offset elsewhere by exactly the kind of plangent expressiveness that the music calls for. Gardner and the BBC Symphony Orchestra contribute a brilliant and ultra-accurate accompaniment, although there are times when the music’s counterbalancing lyrical wistfulness could be more tellingly conveyed.

No such reservation applies elsewhere. The Sonata for String Orchestra is a later re-working (quite substantial in places) of one of Walton’s far too seldom performed masterpieces, his String Quartet in A minor of 1947. This arrangement by Walton and Malcolm Arnold makes major demands of ensemble on a full string section, to which the BBC Symphony Orchestra respond with world-class precision and loveliness: the slow movement in particular emerges as a creation as haunting as the composer ever penned. The equally taxing difficulties in the orchestral Partita are tackled at the full-tilt pace they require, again with classy results.

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Malcolm Hayes