When did any of us last hear William Walton’s Viola Concerto in live
performance? Probably a lifetime or two ago; concertos for viola are rare birds
indeed. That made Yuri Bashmet’s supremely beautiful performance of the work,
with Andrew Davis conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Music Center
on Thursday night, all the more miraculous, all the more welcome.
Writing of Walton’s work when it was new, in 1929, the essayist Donald Tovey
could see “no limits to what may be expected of the tone-poet who created
it.” That sense of omnipotence remains in the work. Not particularly daring in
its musical language — Walton never was, in fact — the concerto is a
remarkably satisfying essay in a warm, intensely lyric manner that expresses
great thinking with the simplest gestures.
The concerto only lasts about 20 minutes, but its progression — from the long,
haunting melodic lines of the opening slow movement, through the garrulous
scherzo, to the finale that recedes into dark shadows at the end — is the work
of a sure master. Tovey’s recognition of its qualities was keen, but it could
actually be argued that this early work persists as Walton’s masterpiece.
The young Bashmet is a wonder. Adept as a soloist, chamber-music participant
and, recently, conductor, he looks like a romantic hero out of Pushkin and
plays in a similar manner. The elegance of his phrasing, his absolute command
of the mellowness that lies at the heart of his instrument: these were the
elements that ennobled his work in the important Walton work — and, as well,
in an unimportant brief Telemann concerto at the start.
Andrew Davis is no stranger here, in his earlier capacity as head of the
Toronto Symphony and currently as music director of the Glyndebourne Festival
and the BBC Symphony. A sober, correct musician rather than a spellbinding one,
he got the orchestra through a clean, classic, refined reading of Stravinsky’s
Symphony in C, and a rather unruly one of that composer’s “Firebird” excerpts
in the suite fashioned in 1919.
It could be, of course, that the vulgarity of the “Firebird” performance was
preordained, coming as it did after the serene good sense of the Walton
concerto. It was, therefore, one piece too many on the program; less might have
been more.

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