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Walton, Barber: Violin Concertos / Bowes, Swensen, Malmo Opera Orchestra

Walton / Barber / Bowes / Moo / Swensen
Release Date: 06/28/2011 
Label:  Signum U.k.   Catalog #: 238   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Sir William WaltonSamuel Barber
Performer:  Thomas Bowes
Conductor:  Joseph Swensen
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Malmö Opera Orchestra
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

WALTON Violin Concerto. Henry V: 2 Pieces for Strings. BARBER Violin Concerto. Adagio for Strings Thomas Bowes (vn); Joseph Swensen, cond; Malmö Op O SIGNUM 238 (66:02)

It’s clear from the first few notes of William Walton’s Violin Concerto that violinist Thomas Bowes’s approach to the work resembles Lydia Mordkovitch’s or Aaron Rosand’s lyricism more closely Read more than it does Jascha Heifetz’s, Zino Francescatti’s, or Kyung-Wha Chung’s bite. Bowes draws a rich tone from the lower registers of his 1659 Nicolo Amati and a brilliant-silvery one in the stratosphere, but he or the violin may seem to strain midrange (the engineers have captured that violin center stage, while still allowing plenty of depth for the orchestral sound). Bowes’s technical command in some of the first movement’s fireworks doesn’t seem complete, either; if you listen to a recording with bated breath, hoping against hope it won’t happen, the soloist’s in trouble. Actually, Bowes never really gets into trouble, but he hardly makes the double-stops combined with rapid string crossings sound secure. At times, too, he employs an almost over-the-top portamento. Whether or not the concerto will tolerate a wide range of performing styles, some things seem to lie outside the bounds. That’s not to say, however, that the lyrical moments in the first movement aren’t as touching as they should be or that the soloist and orchestra don’t share a common view of the work’s possibilities. The generally excellent notes relate that Walton had suffered a tarantula bite before writing the second movement and, surviving, encapsulated the experience there. Despite its quicksilver virtuosity, Bowes seems more secure in it, though he also includes several almost outrageous portamentos in the moody episodes. On the whole, however, he presents a moody alternative version of the movement that the concerto’s admirers should find both fascinating and satisfying. In the finale, Bowes seems most effective in the passages that soar into the highest registers, while he’s relatively stodgy in the statements of the quirky theme in double-stops and their related passagework. Heifetz and company shine in these moments—just compare the sizzle in the finale’s coda. The story goes that Kyung-Wha Chung asked Walton why he made the movement so difficult, and he quipped, “That damned Heifetz”; the notes cite Walton’s earlier remarks about the concerto being originally conceived as more intimate than flashy. In fact, the notes include summaries of, and quotations from, some of the composer’s correspondence concerning the concerto and its early performances. Heifetz, for example, sent Walton a message relating that the premiere had been a great success (I’ve been able to examine, in the Library of Congress’s Heifetz collection, Walton’s earlier letter to Heifetz begging off from attending the first performance in Cleveland—he had been reluctant to cross over during wartime—and including some specific editorial suggestions). The first half of the program concludes with the atmospheric readings of the “Passacaglia on the Death of Falstaff” and the selection “Touch Her Soft Lips and Part” from Walton’s score to Laurence Olivier’s movie Henry V.

Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto, given its premiere by Albert Spalding after a controversy that only about a decade ago still appeared to be the subject of potential litigation, received early recordings by Isaac Stern (urgently redolent) and Robert Gerle (wiry and bracing). Now students play its first two movements as readily as in an earlier era they might have played a concerto by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. It’s no surprise, therefore, that Bowes’s performance seems technically alert and clean. But conductor Joseph Swensen and the orchestra provide a transparent reading of the orchestral part that reveals subtleties of orchestration and counterpoint that may surprise some listeners. And Bowes’s committed reading of Walton’s concerto makes his lyricism in Barber’s work seem almost a foregone conclusion. Bowes spans a large dynamic and emotional range in the slow movement, occasionally making a perhaps hitherto neglected passage glow with an unsuspected inner light. Bowes, Swensen, and the orchestra make the finale perhaps compensate in melodic flow for what it lacks in bravura.

I once tried to show that Barber’s Adagio for Strings led the individual voices in a manner that might have satisfied the rules in a manual of Palestrina’s counterpoint or Gregorian Chant—leaps, melodic dissonances of a sort, generally resolve in stepwise motion in the opposite direction. Swensen’s performance of the piece makes this observation seem almost irrelevant, emphasizing the emotional shadows and the topology of string sonorities rather than melodic plane geometry.

While Bowes’s somewhat wayward account especially of the spikiest moments of Walton’s concerto may make some listeners cautious, the rest of the program should be ingratiating and even revelatory. Recommended, therefore, on that basis but with a soupçon of a caveat.

FANFARE: Robert Maxham Read less

Works on This Recording

1. Concerto for Violin in B minor by Sir William Walton
Performer:  Thomas Bowes (Violin)
Conductor:  Joseph Swensen
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Malmö Opera Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1938-1939; England 
2. Concerto for Violin, Op. 14 by Samuel Barber
Performer:  Thomas Bowes (Violin)
Conductor:  Joseph Swensen
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Malmö Opera Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1939; USA 
3. Henry V: Orchestral Suite - no 2, Passacaglia "Death of Falstaff" by Sir William Walton
Conductor:  Joseph Swensen
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Malmö Opera Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1943-1944; England 
4. Henry V: Orchestral Suite - no 4, Touch her soft lips and part by Sir William Walton
Conductor:  Joseph Swensen
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Malmö Opera Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1943-1944; England 
5. Adagio for Strings, Op. 11 by Samuel Barber
Conductor:  Joseph Swensen
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Malmö Opera Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1936; Rome, Italy 

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