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Sir William Walton

Walton`s Cello Concerto with Piatigorsky

1957. Royal Festival Hall, London
The UK premiere of Walton's Cello Concerto in London in 1957
Composer Sir William Walton
Conductor Sir Malcolm Sargent
Ensemble BBC Symphony Orchestra
Instrumentalist Gregor Piatigorsky
Genre Symphonic concert

Walton’s Cello Concerto was commissioned by the Russian cellist Gregor
Piatigorsky, who had admired the composer’s previous concertos for viola (1929
rev.1961) and violin (1939) and deputised the pianist Ivor Newton to approach
Walton on his behalf. The reply came: ‘I’m a composer. I’ll write anything for
anybody it he pays me…Naturally, I write much better if I’m paid in dollars.’ The
concerto, his first large-scale concert-hall piece for 18 years, was composed at his
villa on the island of Ischia between February and October 1956. Piatigorsky
premiered it in Boston under Charles Munch on 25 January 1957. He then gave the
first European performance on 13 February 1957 at a Royal Philharmonic Society
concert with the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Malcolm Sargent in
the Royal Festival Hall. Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother attended and that
performance, presented here, was both broadcast and televised by the BBC.

Slow and reflective, the Moderato first movement has a seductively serene quality.
Launched by a memorable, delicately judged initial chord, the long, lyrical opening
theme is both alluring and doleful. All the work’s other themes grow out of its
ascending intervals, dotted-note motif and rhythmic outlines. Near the end of the
movement the main theme recurs, ardent and eloquent.

The nimble central scherzo, marked Allegro appassionato, is characteristically
brilliant, its gossamer textures particularly striking. It is rooted in a rapid rhythmic
figure which initiates the soloist’s first theme. A more introspective melody is
developed and then followed by a march-like idea, initiated by the soloist, which
launches new thematic material. This vivid, mercurial movement provides a
satisfying contrast to the two essentially measured and rhapsodic movements
surrounding it.

The finale, which resumes the spirit of the opening movement, takes the form of a
theme and improvisations. Stated by the cello in its high register over a light
accompaniment of pizzicato orchestral strings, the cantilena-like theme is intricate
and carefully fashioned. An episode for unaccompanied cello leads to the first
improvisation in which the soloist is supported by tremolando strings and vivid
splashes of xylophone, vibraphone, celesta and harp. The second improvisation is a
cadenza-like invention for solo cello, whilst the third is a lively orchestral toccata.
In the eloquent fourth improvisation, the cello is once more presented without
accompaniment; its closing high trills usher in the epilogue, where the principal
theme from the first movement recurs (here finally receiving its true
recapitulation) and the Finale’s principal subject is stated once again in its original
form. The concerto, one of Walton’s most closely-knit as well as eloquent works,
ends as it began with the soloist musing against a gently rocking figure.

Throughout the piece the soloist is never obscured by the orchestra and the
percussion is used with subtlety and restraint. Walton makes effective use of the
vibraphone, which he had only previously used in the film score Escape Me Never
(1934) and his opera Troilus and Cressida (1954). Extremely redolent of the period,
this instrument also plays a significant role in the contemporaneous Eighth
Symphony of Ralph Vaughan Williams. The solo part is entirely idiomatic and
consummately exploits the cello’s rich cantabile voice.

Walton had planned to attend this London performance, but a serious accident
prevented him from doing so. In January he was being driven by his wife Susana
from Naples to London when their car ran into a cement lorry near Rome. Both
sustained serious injury, and months of hospitalisation in Rome ensued. In her
biography of her husband, Susana wrote that ‘William agonised over a small radio,
trying to hear the performance over the air from London.’ Tapes of the Boston and
London performances were sent to him and he suggested to Piatigorsky that his
interpretation could be ‘tightened up…altogether more tough and rhythmical’.
When the RCA recording came out, the composer wrote to ‘My dear friend
Grisha’ thanking him for ‘an absolutely superb interpretation and performance.
Everything about it is just as it should be, and your playing is magnificent!’

Though one can understand the composer’s delight with the RCA recording which
captures every nuance of the score, the live UK premiere performance, preserved
on this release, is more rhapsodic and instinctive, responding keenly to the virtuoso
writing in the scherzo and finale. It is a flexible performance which reveals a
humane side to this deft, elusive concerto.

© Paul Conway, 2009

William Walton 1902-1983

Cello Concerto

1    Announcement

2    I.     Moderato

3    II.    Allegro appassionato

4    III.  Theme and improvisations

5    Applause

6    Back-announcement

Recorded: 13 February 1957, Royal Festival Hall, London

A Royal Philharmonic Society Concert at the Royal Festival Hall.
First UK performance (Piatigorsky commissioned and premiered the work in Boston on 21 January 1957).
From the Richard Lewis Collection

  • Gregor Piatigorsky
  • BBC Symphony Orchestra
  • Sir Malcolm Sargent

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