I can't think of another recording that packs this much outstanding music for viola and orchestra onto one CD. That is all wonderful English music from the golden era of Enlish music, the early 20th-century, with the likes of Vaughan Williams and Walton is excellent. Further, new discoveries, for me at least, of the Howells Elegy and Bowen Concerto is even better. And best of all is that violist Helen Callus is superb. She plays with such passion and drama, with a richness of sound that seems to have a thousand different possibilities, each one perfectly suited to every mood and nuance. Take the Vaughan Williams, for example which opens the CD. The Prelude is full and bold, the Carol is touching and intimate, the Christmas Dance is raucus and full of energy and wit.
Then we move to the Howells Elegy, which is the emotional heart of the CD and the standout among a recording filled with standouts. Though clearly modeled after Vaughan Williams Talis Fantasia, and certainly from that great English school of string writing, it is a unique work that breathes and aches in remembrence of Howells fallen schoolmate from WWI. I can see this recording setting a trend by which this work becomes a regular part of the concert repetoire. It is so wonderful to listen to and it highlights the tremendous string section of the New Zealand Symphony, led by Marc Taddei.
The Walton Concerto is certainly the most recorded work on the CD, and it holds its own against the likes of Bashmet, Kennedy, Vengerev, and even Primrose. Once again, what shines through with Callus is her passion, her beautifully engaging sound, and her glorius music making.
The final work on the CD, the Bowen Concerto, was new to me and it is a great addition. Though perhaps not as profound as the Howells or Walton, this music is more a showcase for the soloist. A concerto more in the style of a 19th-century violin concerto, Callus is more than up to the enormous demands of the required virtuosity. The cadenza in the final movement is by Callus herself, and also seems in the tradition of the great concertos of the 19th-century, full of flair, confidence and pyrotechnics.
The orchestra sounds wonderful throughout, the sound is always warm and rich, and the CD ends with big orchestral flourish surely designed to bring an audience to its feet. Highly Recommended.
There are over 35 recordings of Walton's Viola Concerto, at least ten of which are paired with his own, much better known, violin concerto. If you have the violin concerto already then this is probably the disc for you. What makes it stand out is the imaginative couplings of top quality viola music from Vaughan Williams, Howells and Bowen, along with the energetic brilliance of Helen Callus, well-supported by the increasingly impressive New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, under the baton of Mark Taddei.
I shall deal with the pieces in the order they occur on the disc.
The first three tracks are Part 1 of Vaughan Williams' suite for Viola and Orchestra. Although the complete work comprises eight pieces, this is the best version I have ever heard of these three - particularly the opening track. The opening is majestic and uplifting in which the viola soars. The second is beautiful and reflective, while, the third - much shorter is unashamedly rustic in tone. (Total playing time about 11 minutes).
The next track is Howells Elergy for Viola, String Quartet and String Orchestra (ten and a half minutes). After about one and a quarter minutes there is a lovely sonorous passgae where the viola climbs to a bright climax. I can pay the Elergy no higher compliment than saying that the whiole work is very reminiscent of Vaughan Williams' Variations on a Theme of Thomas Tallis.
Walton's Viola Concert (about 28 minutes). This is the 1961 revision of the 1929 work which was premiered by Paul Hindemith on viola. The revision reduces the wind and brass but adds a harp. This piece needs little introduction and, unusually opens with an Andante slow movement of real depth and quality although, if you are new to the work it will require several listenings to gain a full appreciation of all the subtleties and combinations of instrumental voices. The second movement (a four and a half minute Vivo) is an absolute, almost Nigel-Kennedy jazz-style, gem. The third movement, while perhaps the least memorable is performed outstandingly and fades away most wonderfully to its unique, if surprising, ending
York Bowen's Concerto for Viola (about 32 minutes) is more of a mixed bag. The first movement is absolutely delightful with a main theme sounding a bit like a menacing introduction to a murder mystery movie (see if you agree?). The second movement has, at first, a touch of melancholy - but the velvet viola's mood is lifted by both brass and woodwind, the contrast of the harp is also most pleasing. The third movement is, for me, a little disappointing - while I admire the sheer technical brilliance of Callus's cadenza(s), I do find them a touch eccentric but this is a minor criticism of an absolutely brilliant CD containing almost 80 minutes of top-quality Viola-based music. I cannot recommend it too highly.
Very informative "sleeve-notes" nice to see all the composers lived to a great ages of 86, 91, 81 and 77 respectively!
This disc, very well recorded in 2005, first came to my attention through the suggestion of a fellow reviewer. Previously the recordings made by Nigel Kennedy and Lars Tomter had been discs of preference but both , though individually fine, did not seem to deliver that total satisfaction that Kyung Wha Chung did on her recording of the violin concerto. In general it seems that the violin concerto and the cello concerto have both been better served on disc than the viola concerto.
That is until now.
This disc supplies all that the concerto demands. Especially there is that ability to 'fly' with the swung rhythms of the central movement especially but also with the last movement. It is the lack of flight that holds the Kennedy version back. This is a matter of vision rather than greater or lesser technique. There is a need for joy in this concerto if it is to avoid being too serious, a characteristic which would then be emphasised by the tonal nature of the instrument itself. Helen Callus, a name previously unknown to me, is clearly a player of not only great technical skill, but also one of a sensitive musical nature and one who has the ability to make her instrument 'sing.' This second characteristic is abundantly obvious throughout this interestingly varied disc, but it is also one that welds beautifully with the ability to 'fly' in the Walton concerto. This combination makes this recording especially attractive.
The Bowen concerto is a rhapsodic piece, skilfully written. Bowen was essentially a pianist of considerable personal renown during the first part of his career. His piano works were even referred to as the English Rachmaninov although listeners would search in vain for the landmark Rachmaninov big melodies that are so very distinctive. Nevertheless this viola concerto is a finely written work with plenty of substance to give it musical weight and be a satisfying musical experience. The Howells Elegy is a moving tribute to one of his friends, killed in W.W.1. It is conceived as a work for viola, string quartet and string orchestra and was an acknowledged tribute to Vaughan Williams' Tallis Fantasia. It receives a sensitively convincing performance here.
Finally there is the suite for viola and orchestra by Vaughan Williams which opens this disc. The Suite is in three sections, each subdividing to give a total of 9 short sections spanning three 'movements.' This is an unjustly underplayed work and it is good to report that it receives a fine performance here. It is likely that this will be the reference version of this suite for some time yet to come. ( US comment additional information as follows: Callus' performance of the VW Suite for Viola and Small Orchestra may well be the reference version of Group I of the Suite. Her choice of a slower tempo in the Carol than the score indicates helps to make it especially magical. Groups II and III, however, are not included on this disc, presumably for programming reasons such as including the even less well-known Howells and Bowen works. Although Callus' performances of the Howells and Bowen are wonderful, too, it's a shame we don't (yet) have a complete VW Suite from her).
I would suggest that this is a very imaginative disc that should be seriously considered by anyone interested in viola music. All of the music is well written and of satisfying musical substance. The Walton will be the main item for many and this recording certainly deserves to be considered only with the very best.