Like his teacher Yehudi Menuhin before him, the artist formerly known as "Nige" proves to be an uncommonly dab performer on the viola. He certainly has the full measure of the 26-year-old Walton's astonishingly mature concerto (unquestionably the finest of the composer's three), penetrating to its bitter-sweet core with devastating emotional candour. Similarly, Kennedy's bitingly intense reading of the yearningly lyrical Violin Concerto earns the warmest plaudits in its characterful involvement and edge-of-seat spontaneity. If Aston Villa's most famous fan doesn't quite match the technical wizardry and golden tone displayed by dedicatee Jascha Heifetz in both of his legendary versions (from 1940 with Sir Eugene Goossens and the Cincinatti Symphony Orchestra on Biddulph, or the 1950 recording with the composer directing the Philharmonia on mid-price RCA), his is a commanding presence none the less. Few living conductors can boast such impeccable Waltonian credentials as Andrè Previn, and he shapes both concertos to the manner born, whilst at the same time procuring playing of the highest quality from the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. EMI's Abbey Road sonics are wonderfully ripe and true, and this is indeed a peach of a coupling. --Andrew Achenbach
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Nevertheless Kennedy plays both instruments very well indeed and has the advantage of Previn's naturally idiomatic conducting. This is not an advantage to be dismissed lightly as the orchestral contribution and the swung feel to parts of the concertos are vitally important and Previn fully delivers.
Previn is also the conductor on the award winning version by Kyung Wha Chung and it is that point that one starts to notice the differences. Kyung Wha Chung simply has more sheer flair and, where required bravura, sensitivity, quick-silver tone and the ability to make the violin 'fly.' This is especially apparent in the central movement of the violin concerto. However, Chung's current coupling may not appeal so much.
Kennedy's version of the viola concerto shares much the same virtues of the violin concerto, accurate playing, empathy and excellent support, but also seems a fraction earthbound when compared to Tomter on Naxos which aslo includes an excellent version of the second symphony.
For those looking for the ideal coupling of these two concertos I would still suggest that Kennedy is the best option to consider. However for those willing to buy more than one disc there is much to say for the two separate Naxos discs which also come with additional Walton works in good performances, thus being very tempting options too. For those wanting a very special violin concerto that flies like no other, then it has to be Kyung Wha Chung in whatever coupling it comes with (It has been re-coupled several times - all good options). I would personally couple that with the Tomter on Naxos.
Kennedy adapts to the viola as to the instrument born, so far as I can tell. I first heard this outstanding modern masterpiece under the best imaginable circumstances. Primrose was himself the soloist, and the performance was given in the old St Andrew's Halls in Glasgow (now alas no more), which boasted acoustics that were probably as good as any in Europe. From this experience I learned how the balance between the notoriously shy viola and a full concert orchestra ought to sound, although the scoring I was listening to at that time must have been the original version before Walton decided to revise in in the 1960's. It should be no surprise to any of us that a virtuoso orchestrator of the calibre of Walton knows what he is doing. There is no need to dampen down the orchestral forte, because Walton has judged that matter for us, nor is there any need to suppose that when the viola seems to struggle to make its voice heard that is not exactly how it is meant to sound in the context. It reminds me of some sequences in Brahms's violin concerto - there are many instrumental tigers who can make these sound effortless, which is an achievement without an objective as they are meant to sound effortful.
The violin concerto is probably not quite the equal of its great companion, but that would have been asking a lot. It is a more extrovert composition, not of the stature of Elgar's certainly but still to my mind one of the finest 20th century examples of its kind, more ambitious than Delius's and with greater consistency and purity of style than that by Sibelius himself. You can hear the original dedicatee Heifetz in a fine set of all the Walton concertos (together with Previn's famous account of the first symphony) which has Previn again conducting in the viola concerto with Yuri Bashmet as solo. It seems to me that Kennedy has nothing to fear from comparison with Heifetz, and in the nature of the case he is better recorded. Heifetz is slightly quicker but the real difference is one of temperamant - Kennedy is more relaxed, a treatment that the work takes to very well. In the viola concerto I prefer Kennedy again. The effect from him is richer, and I suspect that the recording has more than a little to do with that.
In my own view Previn was probably the successor of Boult as the leading conductor of English music in his generation, a very welcome state of affairs in breaking away from insularity in this respect. His particular affinity with Walton was well established from the B flat minor symphony, and he confirms that impression with these sympathetic readings of less forceful music. There is a very satisfying sense of coherence and consistency in this set, and I recommend it without reservation.
After playing it and comparing it again with Chung's, I can see that the violin isn't placed nearly so far forward in the Kennedy version, and that works to his disadvantage. He wants a slightly more introverted interpretation; then all the more reason to hear him over, rather than within, the orchestra. EMI has placed this version in one of the "Great Recordings of the Century" category, so I may be of the minority opinion; but that status may have been encouraged by the famous British chauvinism, who knows?
It's significant that this violin concerto was written for Heifetz, and personally I would look for other, similarly emotional and virtuosic intensities of style for the best version.