Walton Violin Concerto

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The Walton violin concerto first entered my teenage consciousness through a set of ancient 78’s found in the attic. At 14, the name Jascha Heifetz used to cause me almost as much of a frisson as my cricketing heroes, and here was a recording of my icon playing a Walton violin concerto, spread across some 4 hefty shellac discs. Heifetz’s recordings were not that easy to get hold of in the UK in the early 70's and here was I perhaps stealing a march on my violin mad friends. I rushed down the flimsy ladder somehow not allowing the whole set to smash to the floor, and played the whole piece through.

I remember vividly that melting opening and the frustrating fumble as the ensuing tutti was broken off at the end of the first side. I also remember Heifetz's taut and furious dash through that scary second movement. It would be some years before my crush on the gritty Heifetz style wore off a little and I began to see other characters emerge from this most romantic work. When in the summer of 2004 I had the great good fortune to be invited by Lady Walton to spend some time on Ischia as I worked on the concerto, I was able to visit the place of its writing, not far away at the Villa Cimbrone on the Amalfi coast, and to soak up the atmosphere of this extraordinarily beautiful place. Coming to this part of the Mediterranean had had a profound and lasting effect on Walton when he’d first left England with the Sitwell brothers in 1920, and its magical quality is telling in this work, I think. In Tony Palmer’s 1981 ITV film “At the Haunted End of the Day”, Walton speaks about the journey by train through a rain soaked France and the moment of astonishment at leaving the last Alpine tunnel into blinding Italian sunshine. He also speaks about the concerto;

“Most of it was written at Ravello, near Amalfi, at the Villa Cimbrone where I spent a lot of time with a lady I loved very dearly, Alice Wimborne…Very intelligent, very kind…We had a little room outside the main gate. Alice was very good at making me work and would get very cross if I mucked about.”

The concerto was completed back in England in the inauspicious summer of 1939. Unlike its almost exact contemporary - the violin concerto of Benjamin Britten - this work's drama has no premonitions or forebodings of world events. Rather, it is wrapped in an intensely personal realm; its narrative a love story that finally unfolds in an accompanied cadenza near the end of the work; the same device used so memorably by Elgar in his violin concerto. In fact, these two works share a common key as well as this feature, though temperamentally they could not be more different. Both the cadenzas are a summing up of all that has gone before, but while the Elgar acknowledges the loss of love, the Walton seems to signal an acceptance of it. (I like to think of the moment at rehearsal figure 75 as the actual moment of release; all resistance is finally overcome - as if the concerto's subject finally gives in.)
I always think now of the Walton as "Love won" and the Elgar as "Love lost".

The whole piece begins in loneliness, the first movement a kind of lament interrupted by angry and passionate outbursts. The moment that Heifetz, (he had commissioned the work at William Primrose's suggestion) set eyes on that soulful opening melody he must have known he had struck gold; it is simply the most rapturous of inspirations. Having been presented, it is steadily ratcheted up in intensity until, beside itself with longing, the violin is finally submerged in the first sobbing tutti. When, towards the end of the movement, the opening idea is recapitulated, Walton gives it first to the flute while the solo violin consoles itself with the counter meloday first heard under the main theme at the beginning.
The second movement is a scherzo - Presto capriccioso alla napolitna. It is wild, flirtatious, sensual and mockingly witty. Playing it, one feels almost as if the violin takes on a provocative and tempting characteristic; the orchestra responds, though sometimes reluctantly.
The finale is a wonderful amalgam. The heat and luxuriousness of Mediterranean light set against the grit and purposefulness of a Henry the Fifth. The former character crystalized by another heartstoppingly gorgeous melody stretching a full eighteen bars. Somehow all this is synthesised in the cadenza: loneliness is banished, the final flourish a celebratory little march and a truly regal end.

c.Thomas Bowes October 2005