The centenary of the birth of Sir William Walton has
already occasioned several commemorative issues including significant
collections from both Decca and EMI, the latter a reissue on 3 CDs of
the bulk of their utterly indispensible ‘Walton Edition’. EMI’s set,
then, has the imprimatur of the composer itself. Decca’s 4-disc set
has the advantage of being pretty comprehensive as regards major works
and is priced very reasonably. So, can this BMG set compete, containing
as it does just five works and lacking Belshazzar’s Feast? The
short answer is that it can compete very well. Indeed, the quality and
importance of several of the recordings included here make it arguably
the most desirable and important of the centenary tributes so far issued.
At the beginning of this year Norman Lebrecht argued
in a rather
absurd polemic in the Daily Telegraph that Walton was a composer
of fairly minor significance with no works of real stature to his name
and a portfolio of inconsistent quality. Let me join the list of people,
most of them far more qualified than I, who have refuted Lebrecht’s
specious and tendentious argument. It is true that Walton’s output,
which was not enormous in any case, was somewhat uneven in quality but
the overall quality must be judged in the context that several of his
works were of major importance. Here was a man who wrote one of the
most startlingly original of all twentieth century choral works; concertos
for both violin and viola which are fit to rank among the best composed
for either of these instruments in the last century; and one of the
most striking and successful of British symphonies. Can such a man be
written off as a failure or as an under-achiever? I think not.
Happily, this BMG set contains three of the four works
to which I have alluded (the exception being Belshazzar’s Feast)
and all of them in magnificent performances. Thus the set is, I think,
an ideal introduction to and celebration of Walton at his finest. (I
wonder in passing if Norman Lebrecht has actually heard any of these
To begin with, the set includes what is surely by some
distance the finest recording ever made of the First Symphony. There
have been several other notable recordings, including the pioneering
one made in 1935 by Sir Hamilton Harty and the LSO, Walton’s own very
fine 1951 account with the Philharmonia and a typically searching and
pointed reading by Rattle and the CBSO. However, not even these recordings
have come close, in my view, to Previn’s 1966 recording. On this evidence
it is small wonder that he became one of the composer’s own favourite
interpreters of his music.
This was, I believe, one of the very first recordings
which Previn made with the LSO. This is one of those recordings where
no one seems to put a foot wrong. The extraordinary first movement (one
of the most dynamic in all twentieth century symphonic music, I would
suggest) crackles with electricity from first to last. Previn drives
the rhythms relentlessly and the LSO respond as if the rapport between
orchestra and conductor went back years. The brass in particular are
absolutely superb and the climaxes are shattering.
No less riveting is the scherzo, famously (and uniquely?)
marked ‘con malizia’. The biting rhythms are of the utmost complexity
but are spat out with ferocity yet also with great agility by Previn
and his players, outstanding among whom is the virtuoso timpanist. In
the slow movement ‘malizia’ gives way to ‘malincolia’. This is amongst
the most passionate music ever to flow from Walton’s pen and it is here
given a shatteringly intense reading, building from a flute solo of
glacial remoteness (and reprised at the very end) to a turbulent, heart-wrenching
climax which Previn achieves with mastery. At this point the LSO strings
in particular play as if their very lives depended upon it.
The finale has acquired a certain notoriety over the
years. Having completed the first three movements Walton suffered from
one of the most celebrated cases of ‘writer’s block’ in musical history,
to the extent that Harty was obliged to give the 1933 premiere without
including the as yet unwritten last movement. Nearly two years were
to pass before Walton completed the last movement and several commentators
have since complained that the finale is a let down and doesn’t measure
up to the preceding movements. I’m not at all sure I agree.
We now know that Walton’s inability to complete his
symphony had much to do with his then-turbulent love life. The markedly
different mood of the finale which he eventually composed surely reflects
the fact that by 1935 Walton had moved on emotionally. He had formed
a new romantic attachment by this time and was much happier. Perhaps
the finale was his way of saying: "I had some problems, but I’m
over them now." In such a context it is perhaps easier to relate
the finale to the preceding music and to accept it as a successful conclusion
to the work. In Previn’s recording this movement is played with exuberance
and swaggering panache.
I believe that Walton’s First symphony is a great work
and this staggeringly fine performance makes it seem greater still.
The remastered sound opens up well and there is greater amplitude than
on my old CD copy of this recording. The recording sounds as if it was
made three or four years ago, not 36 years ago (a tribute to the Decca
engineers of the day who were responsible for the recording, I think.)
The Violin Concerto was finished four years after the
symphony, in 1939. It was written to a commission from Jascha Heifetz,
no less. In itself the receipt of a commission from the leading
violinist of the day was surely a sign that Walton had ‘arrived’ on
the international scene. Heifetz premiered the work in Cleveland, Ohio
in December 1939 and subsequently, in February 1941, he made the first
recording with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and Sir Eugene Goossens.
(This recording, available in a good transfer on Biddulph, is well worth
seeking out. Not only is it an excellent performance but it is also
the only one made before Walton revised the orchestration, thinning
the percussion parts in particular.) Walton revised the work in 1945
and the later version of the score was used for this 1950 recording
Like the Previn recording of the symphony, this is
a classic recording with Heifetz giving a peerless, dazzling reading
of the ferociously demanding solo part (though arguably his playing
on the 1941 recording is even finer). The reason for the success of
this performance is clear within a few bars. Heifetz’s wonderfully clear,
singing tone is ideal for the warm, sensuous (even nostalgic) vein which
pervades much of the score. And, of course, the many stretches of virtuoso
passagework have rarely, if ever, been dispatched so thrillingly and
so effortlessly. Yet what distinguishes this performance above all is
the soloist’s positive and intuitive response to the lyrical spirit
of the work (what an apt coupling was his excellent account of the Elgar
concerto in an earlier issue of this recording). The more reflective,
songful passages in the Neapolitan scherzo have never sounded so yearning
in my experience. Walton, a much-underrated conductor of his own music,
conducts with sensitivity and the performance benefits enormously from
the contribution of the Philharmonia, then in their heyday. The mono
recording has come up extremely well in this latest incarnation.
This is an essential recording for anyone who loves
either great violin playing or Walton’s music (or both!)
The second CD brings another concerto recording by
the artist who commissioned the work. It was the great Russian cellist,
Gregor Piatigorsky, who inspired what was to be Walton’s third and last
concerto for a stringed instrument. He gave the first performance of
the resulting concerto in January 1957 with Munch and the Boston orchestra
and the same team recorded it very shortly afterwards.
This recording, while it may not be the last word on
the subject, has an unmistakeable sense of occasion about it. Once again,
as had been the case with his Violin Concerto, Walton was fortunate
indeed that his music was in the hands of a supreme virtuoso, a player
to whom technical challenges seem to be mere inconveniences and one,
moreover, who is at one with the romantic spirit which lies at the heart
of the concerto. Piatigorsky possesses the fulsome richness of tone
which enables him to do full justice to all the many lyrical passages.
Throughout he receives fine support from Munch and the orchestra, the
aristocrats among American orchestras. They characterize their parts
vividly though the slightly boxy recorded sound (from Symphony Hall,
I assume) does not do them justice. The soloist is balanced fairly forwardly.
There have been several other fine recordings of the work since this
pioneering recording was set down. However, Piatigorsky’s account is
a very fine one. It is highly recommendable, very enjoyable and, of
course, a document of great importance.
The Viola Concerto was the first of Walton’s concerti.
Composed in 1929 it predates all his major works apart from Façade.
He wrote it for the English virtuoso, Lionel Tertis but Tertis did not
like the work, thinking it too modern (a view he later revised). Thus
at the first performance the composer, Paul Hindemith, stepped in at
short notice to play the solo part, thereby beginning a lifelong mutual
regard between himself and Walton (Walton later repaid the debt handsomely
with his 1963 Variations on a Theme of Hindemith which was based
on a fragment from Hindemith’s Cello Concerto.)
This was the only recording in this collection which
was new to me and what a performance it is! From the very opening, as
both soloist and orchestra impart a wonderfully veiled sound to the
music, it is clear that this is to be a reading of great poetry and
sensitivity. Immediately too we hear that Yuri Bashmet’ s immense range
of tone is just what is needed in this work. He has a nut-brown richness
in the lower registers and an exquisite plangency at the top. None of
the work’s myriad technical demands appear to pose him any problems,
nor is there even a suggestion of the problems of intonation which marred
the strained recording by Yehudi Menuhin with Walton conducting (EMI).
In short, Bashmet is totally in command.
He receives idiomatic accompaniment of great distinction
from the LSO, reunited with their old chief. Previn was also the conductor
on an earlier recording which I have long admired, partnering Nigel
Kennedy and conducting the RPO (EMI, 1987). However, here he and the
LSO surpass that version and, fine though Kennedy is, Bashmet is even
finer, I think.
I love the burnished tones which he produces in the
many lyrical passages. However, he is equally successful (and fearsomely
accurate) in the faster music, not least the scampering second movement.
Here all concerned give a rendition which obeys precisely the composer’s
injunction ‘con molto preciso’. As is the case in the Cello Concerto,
the finale of the Viola Concerto is longer than the other two movements
combined. Bashmet’s playing here is simply magnificent, as is Previn’s
accompaniment. The performance is one of the utmost sensitivity and
refinement; all is beautifully controlled. I can pay Bashmet no greater
compliment than to say that his playing of this movement in particular
strikes me as being on a par with that of Heifetz in the Violin Concerto.
This is the finest recording I have heard of the Viola Concerto and
for any admirer of Walton who was, like me, unwise enough not to acquire
it first time round, its inclusion here is greatly to be welcomed. The
sound is full and excellent.
The final offering is something of a Cinderella among
Walton’s orchestral works. The Sinfonia Concertante had its origins
in music which Walton wrote for an abortive ballet for Diaghilev, to
whom he had been introduced by the Sitwells. He recast the music into
a three-movement work for orchestra and completed this in 1927. Later,
in 1943, he revised it, adding ‘with piano obbligato’ to the title.
Apparently, he later regretted the revision (though this did not stop
him from recording the revised version with Peter Katin for Lyrita in
1971). This present recording is the first (and so far as I know the
only one) of the original score.
It is a curious work, powerfully orchestrated at times
and making significant demands on the pianist. Many of Walton’s stylistic
fingerprints are already evident but I must confess to some uncertainty
about the piece. Firstly, I don’t find the thematic material tremendously
memorable. Secondly, I wonder how easy Walton found it to write for
the piano. The instrument’s percussive nature brings a brittle quality
to the music (I am not using the term pejoratively) but the piano cannot
produce the romantic flights of fancy which occur so often in the later
concertos. The music is reminiscent at times of Prokofiev or early Bartók.
That said, the performance here is very authoritative.
The first movement has power and dash, the second brings warmth and
passion, and in the finale there is wit and exuberance a-plenty. Kathryn
Stott plays vividly and Vernon Handley directs the complex orchestral
part with his usual commitment and attention to detail. It would have
been easy for BMG to have substituted a couple of better known short
works but full marks to them for resisting such temptation and for giving
us the chance to hear instead a rarity in a first class performance.
I cannot detect any significant difference in sound quality between
this and my copy of the original Conifer release; the recording is full-bodied
This collection is a most worthy centenary tribute.
All five recorded performances are from the top drawer and in my opinion
three are ‘best buys’. The set is an ideal introduction to Walton’s
music and is mandatory listening for all those who are already devotees
– and for Norman Lebrecht!
A real bargain which is strongly recommended.
See also review by Rob Barnett