I was in Hayle in Cornwall when I first heard William Walton’s Violin Concerto in B minor. My friend and I had found pleasant bed & breakfast accommodation in the village and were having a few days exploring the countryside, watching the then ubiquitous ‘Western’ diesels (Class 52) working the Penzance to London Paddington services and drinking the fine local St Austell ale. On arriving back at the ‘digs’ after a few well-earned pints, the landlady was watching television: it was ‘Omnibus at the Proms’, introduced by Richard Baker. I have been able to track the day down to Sunday 29 July 1973. The programme featured Elgar’s Cockaigne Overture and the Walton Concerto played by Iona Brown. James Loughran conducted the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in both works. The original concert had been broadcast on Radio 3 on 21 July and had also included Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No.4. Since that evening some 42 years ago, Walton’s Violin Concerto has been one of my favourite works.
The Concerto (1938-39) was composed for Jascha Heifetz. However, Walton did have an eye on the 1939 World Fair and the British contribution to that event. The story of his failure to complete his Violin Concerto on time and problems as to who the soloist should be, make a major essay in its own right. This has been detailed in Battle for Music: Music and British Wartime Propaganda 1935-1945 John Vincent Morris.
The first performance was at the Severance Hall, Cleveland, Ohio on 7 December 1939 with Heifetz and the Cleveland Orchestra conducted by Artur Rodzinski. The London premiere took place at the Royal Albert Hall on 1 November 1941 with the violinist Henry Holst and the composer conducting the London Philharmonic. After some revision, including the removal of parts for percussion, the revised version was first heard in Wolverhampton on 17 January 1944. Holst was again the soloist with the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra under Dr. Malcolm Sargent.
Robin Hull in his review of the ‘miniature’ score in the 1946 edition of the Penguin Music Magazine considered that it was ‘curious and interesting’ that this work had ‘been much slower to establish itself than…Belshazzar’s Feast or the Symphony (No.1)…’ The reason he puts forward for this is that the Violin Concerto was ‘partially and quite needlessly handicapped from the start by the fantastic blaze of publicity which heralded its first performance in England.’
He felt that the result of such an ‘ill-judged build up was that the public expected nothing less than a resounding masterpiece, eclipsing even the genius of the Symphony [No.1] and there was a considerable sense of disappointment that the concerto fell short of those absurd anticipations.’
It is something that musical historians need to investigate. Much effort has been expended on the composition history and the parts played by Jascha Heifetz, Antonio Brosa and Walton’s lover Alice Wimborne. However, I am not sure a detailed reception history has been attempted from a United Kingdom perspective, examining its premiere in both versions on these shores. I believe that the ‘build up’ was predicated around the fact that critic imagined that the composer would go ‘one better’ than Belshazzar’s Feast or the Symphony. In fact, many felt that he had made a retrograde step back to the earlier Viola Concerto.
Hull admits that ‘judged from the angle of today, the Violin Concerto stands out as a work of very high quality.’ He does not agree that it is Walton’s ‘best work’ (up to 1946). It may be there is an ‘insufficient urgency of address’ or that the composer contents himself ‘with familiar ground rather than fresh adventures.’ Hull concludes by suggesting that the Symphony ‘left some vital [musical] problems to be solved before Walton could genuinely advance on his path as [a] composer, and that the concerto postpones a reckoning with these problems.’ Perhaps subsequent critics would conclude this reckoning would never arrive.
There is no doubt that Walton’s Violin Concerto has retained its popularity over the years. Currently there are some 23 versions of this work currently shown in the Arkiv catalogue, although some are re-packaging’s. It includes recordings by the dedicatee Heifetz, Menuhin and Nigel Kennedy. This compares not unfavourably to Elgar (44 recordings) and less so to Tchaikovsky (166 recordings).
The most balanced critique of this work is by Michael Kennedy (preface, William Walton: A Thematic Catalogue of his Musical Works, 1977): ‘Walton showed he had maintained the imaginative level of the Symphony, increased his command of orchestration, and regained the emotional poise of the Viola Concerto.’ It is not a bad recommendation.