Written by Stephen Brivati
Published: January 31, 2015 at 12:07 AM [UTC]
Many moons ago, after a concert in Amalfi, I met a wrinkled old man in a white hat outside the gents' toilets and shook hands with him. His name was William Walton. He is dead now but I don't think that is because of meeting me. I don't know the Walton Violin Concerto that well and probably never will. There is so little time and so much to do in this life. Two memories of it do stand out. As a child of ten or so, I had a recording of Ida Haendel playing it at the proms. I don`t think I liked the music so much but there was one bar of double stopping that was so sensuous I played that passage over and over until the tape wore out. I have never forgotten that sound and am always slightly disappointed by everyone else in that bar ever since that time. I did enjoy playing the orchestral part with an excellent British violinist , Robert Gibbs, at college. That was some talented dude. Still is, probably....
Not sure what compelled me to spend some time You-tubing (new verb!) this particular work but what the heck! First I clicked on a very recent live performance with that awesome talent, Midori. In many ways one of the all time greats so there is always something to make the jaw drop and or learn from. But it seemed a painful , slightly incoherent performance with the great lady sort of there, not there, angry with herself perhaps..... Looking at her face and general demeanor she seemed rather ill to me, possibly taking some serious medicine. It was depressing but I am sure she will/has moved on from there . It is still true the greatest concert by any violinist I have ever witnessed was by this genius, and it is certainly not easy being from another planet talent wise.
Other performances also did not thrill me so much either. James Ehnes, who has done a superb recording and is one of my favorite players seemed , for him, a little insecure in his live prom performance. So I ended up going back to the old suspects in a sort of retro listening spasm. At the end of the day, depending on taste and inclination I think the best performances are still Heifetz, Haendel, Francesscatti, Menuhin and Chung.
For me, Heifetz is the first choice which left me looking round for a reason why this might be.
I was a little motivated by one of the You-tube comments that his version was shallow and superficial (perhaps the comment was also offered as an example of what is meant by that description?)
Serendipitously, I just happened to be reading Pinker's new book The Sense of Style, and it struck me what an amazing cross-over there was between his discussion and music in general. Pinker notes that there is one style of prose which is best suited for prose in the modern age. It is called 'classic style,' of which the guiding metaphor is seeing the world.
"The writer can see something that the reader has not yet noticed, and he orients the reader's gaze so that she can see it for herself. The purpose of writing is presentation, and its motive is disinterested truth...the writer does not have to argue for the truth; he just needs to present it.... Classic style is not a contemplative or romantic style, in which a writer tries to share his idiosyncratic, emotional and mostly ineffable reactions to something."
I feel this sums up how Heifetz presented the Walton as a dialog with the audience. The moment one tries to slip into another "prose style" with this work (similarly the Elgar), it becomes meandering and vague. Impressive, but curiously elephantine. I would like to see Hilary Hahn play this work. I suspect it would suit her perfectly.
It also serves as a good reminder that as musicians we are aiming at the listener's emotions not our own. We are simply not interesting to other people. Sad, but true.
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I distinctly remember a world-class soloist in the late 1960s, early 1970s, now a senior violin professor at one of Great Britain's premier musical institutions in London, telling me then in a personal conversation that "listening to the Heifetz recording of the Walton concerto, one just feels like quietly placing one's violin in its case and putting it away forever".
Agreed, I would also love to hear Hilary Hahn play the Walton violin concerto. My sentiments exactly.
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