As good as William Walton ever gets - review

Edward Gardner conducts the CBSO at Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Edward Gardner conducts the CBSO at Symphony Hall, Birmingham

Nothing proves the theory about the viola bringing out the best in composers more clearly than William Walton’s Viola Concerto. In contrast to the empty pomp and irksome malice that characterises so much of Walton’s output, this work — perhaps even more than his two other wonderful string concertos — represents another side of the composer. 

Performances are always welcome, especially when the soloist is this country’s leading viola player, Lawrence Power, returning here to the piece with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra under Edward Gardner.

Premiered in 1929 by no less a musician than Paul Hindemith as soloist (decades later, Walton would repay the favour with his Variations on a Theme of Hindemith), the work is sometimes identified as a jazz-age concerto. But it is much more than that, and specifically the romping middle movement marks it out as a great example of British modernism. Gardner took that aspect in his stride, along with all the other elements he fused together tautly and seamlessly.

Right from the ruminative start, Power displayed rock-steady authority. He found serenading delicacy and fierce virtuosity in equal measure. Although it shows the influence of Elgar’s Cello Concerto, still only a decade old when Walton was writing his piece, the Viola Concerto is also shot through with the Italianate light the composer had discovered in the Amalfi – and the ends of both the first and third movements were given their full glinting radiance.

In an otherwise very well-balanced programme, it was perhaps unnecessary to preface this with the Richard III Prelude, an arrangement from Walton’s score for Laurence Olivier’s 1955 film. Magnificently evocative of a Leicester car park — what prescience Walton had! — this empty music disappoints in most other respects, but it chimed in here with the CBSO’s Our Shakespeare season.

If Walton’s brittle First Symphony is thought to convey the pre-war jitters of the 1930s, Elgar’s far greater Second Symphony is unmistakably full of earlier premonitions. The First World War was just over the horizon, and the scherzo’s bristling fanfares suggest a terrible rattling of arms. 

However, there is a deeply personal side too, a “passionate pilgrimage of the soul” that unmasks Elgar’s own near-Mahlerian neurosis. Gardner might have been a little measured in the surging first movement, but in the sustained outpouring of the Larghetto and everything that followed his intense grip inspired searingly focused sound from the orchestra and an exemplary performance.