> WALTON Decca Centenery Edition 4705082 [TB]: Classical Reviews- May2002 MusicWeb(UK)






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BARGAIN OF THE MONTH


Sir William WALTON (1902-1983)
The Centenary Edition

CD1:
Cello Concerto
Symphony No. 1
CD2:
Scapino: A Comedy Overture
Violin Concerto
Symphony No. 2
CD3:
Façade, Suites Nos I and II
Viola Concerto
Variations on a Theme by Hindemith

CD4:
Coronation March: Crown Imperial
Coronation March: Orb and Sceptre*
Belshazzar's Feast

Coronation Te Deum*
Suite: Henry V (adapted by Muir Mathieson)
Robert Cohen (cello), Tasmin Little (violin), Paul Neubauer (viola)
Bryn Terfel (bass-baritone), Timothy Bryam-Wingfield (organ)
Bournemouth Symphony Chorus, Waynflete Singers, L'inviti, Choir of Winchester Cathedral
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra
Andrew Litton, *David Hill
Rec Nov 1993 (CD1), March 1994 (CD2), March 1996 (CD3), Guildhall, Southampton; May 1991 (CD4: Coronation Te Deum, Orb and Sceptre), February 1995 (CD4: remainder), Winchester Cathedral
DECCA 470 508 2 [4CDs: 73.57, 68.31, 71.25, 78.51] budget price


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Decca's homage to Walton in his centenary year takes the form of this four-disc set which gathers together the various recordings made by Andrew Litton and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra through the 1990s. The original issues were rightly acclaimed, so this reissue can be warmly welcomed as an outstanding contribution to the centenary year.

Andrew Litton consistently proves he has an affinity with this music. On CD1 his performance of the First Symphony brings the necessary rhythmic directness to the music, and is particularly exciting. Here as elsewhere the excellent Decca recording aids the cause to the full, while the playing of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra is virtuoso, to say the least. There is great symphonic tension, one of the strengths of this magnificent work, while the slow movement is eloquent and deeply felt. Moreover the finale makes the kind of shattering impact that Walton intended. He was always irritated by the critical opinion that the finale was the weakest movement, calling it 'in many respects the best of the four'. So he would have been pleased with what Litton achieves here.

The Symphony is coupled with the Cello Concerto, in which Robert Cohen is the eloquent soloist. When in 1955 the great cellist Gregor Piatigorsky commissioned a concerto, Walton's response was characteristic: 'I'm a composer. I'll write anything for anybody if he pays me. Naturally I write much better if I'm paid in dollars.' The formula is similar to those deployed in the other concertos, with a slow and reflective opening movement, and the cello's extended first theme is among Walton's finest inventions. To Piatigorsky he wrote: 'So happy you should think the whole work wonderful. It is to my mind the best of my three concertos - but don't say so to Heifetz.' Cohen's thoughtful approach serves the music well, and his tone is always pleasing, not least in the final movement's cadenza. It is a feature of this performance that the slower music has a special tenderness, for example the transition into the finale is most affecting.

CD2 contains the Scapino Overture, the Violin Concerto and the Symphony No. 2. The Violin Concerto (1939) was the first major composition after the First Symphony, whose success had spurred Jascha Heifetz to commission it. Walton feared that it was 'extremely intimate, with not much show and bravura', but in the end it was enthusiastically received, its volatile mixture of brilliance and tenderness proving an ideal combination. Tasmin Little is an artist who has worked with this orchestra and conductor on many occasions, and their close collaboration pays dividends. As we might expect of a concerto written for Heifetz, the virtuoso technical demands are fearsome, but they are triumphantly met.

The Scapino Overture, composed during 1940 for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra's fiftieth anniversary, is at the same time lively and elegant, with an exuberant Italianate mood inspired by a commedia dell' arte figure, a servant in the mould of Till Eulenspiegel and Leporello. The nature of Walton's overture is best indicated by reference to the word derived from Scapino's name: escapade. These characteristics are understood by Litton, whose rendition abounds in darting mischief.

The Symphony No. 2 was commissioned in 1957 to celebrate the city of Liverpool's 750th anniversary, but was only completed three years later, receiving its first performance at the Edinburgh Festival. Inevitably, it has remained in the shadow of its predecessor; but its character is quite different and comparisons are unhelpful. The scale is deliberately more restricted, the subtleties more concentrated - only gradually are the music's secrets revealed, and with them its passionate emotions. It does, however, require one of the largest orchestras Walton ever employed (bigger than in the Symphony No. 1), and Litton takes every opportunity to show the score's subtleties and strengths. His powerful rendition of the passacaglia finale is most compelling.

CD3 includes the instrumental suites drawn from Façade, and two works connected with another giant of 20th music, Paul Hindemith. After the headstrong Lionel Tertis had rejected the Viola Concerto, the premiere was rescued by Hindemith, who was a talented violist as well as a major composer. Walton never forgot this, and when he was asked to compose an orchestral work for the Royal Philharmonic Society's 150th Anniversary in 1963, he wrote a set of variations on a theme taken from Hindemith's Cello Concerto.

The Variations on a Theme of Hindemith is one of the best pieces Walton composed during the later stages of his career (he had just turned sixty at the time). The orchestral writing is assured, so too the balance of material imaginatively drawn from the source. It is a veritable orchestral showpiece, which only the best orchestras dare perform. The Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, which like Britain's other regional orchestras is an international orchestra which happens to be based in the regions, confirms its stature. The playing is assured, though Andrew Litton's performance might have been a little more unbuttoned had the players known the music more intimately. The recorded sound is very good, since Southampton Guildhall has an excellent acoustic for recordings.

Paul Neubauer is an agile soloist in the Viola Concerto, which is among Walton's handful of greatest achievements. The recorded balance with the orchestra feels absolutely right, and he is not over-lit, as string soloists can often be when recordings are made. The performance has a real sense of ebb and flow, of tension and relaxation, and only in terms of the soloist's richness of tone does the performance give ground to the competition, such as Nigel Kennedy's pairing with the Violin Concerto (EMI). This issue is most noticeable in the slower music, of course.

Andrew Litton has made his own selection from the two instrumental suites Walton took from Façade. His preference is to combine these short movements in his own order, which is clearly explained in the listings. The suites bring plenty of solo opportunities, and the Bournemouth players relish them. But whether the music is really worth hearing in this arrangement is open to debate (I hope other people enjoy it more than I do); certainly it seems a pale shadow of the original, in which the witty delivery of the two narrators adds another dimension. Take them away and the music seems short of personality and wit, like a sandwich without the filling. In the context of the whole set, it seems a pity that Litton chose to record this music rather than finer pieces such as the Capriccio Burlesco and the Partita.

CD4 has a splendid performance of Belshazzar's Feast, well recorded in the ample acoustic of Winchester Cathedral. Thankfully the acoustic is less ample as delivered by the Decca engineers than it is 'in the flesh'. Bryn Terfel is predictably fine as the baritone soloist, but the real stars of the show are the members of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, here augmented by extra brass players. The various choral forces respond keenly to Litton's direction to make the most of this highly dramatic work.

Muir Mathieson's Suite from the Henry V film music is heard in an evocative and atmospheric performance, though there is no lack of excitement when the battle music comes along. The two coronation marches can feature more orchestral detail than the Winchester acoustic allows, but they are both given effective performances. Orb and Sceptre is conducted by David Hill, who has enjoyed a close relationship with the orchestra over many years, and the disc is completed by his richly dramatic performance of the Coronation Te Deum.

Decca provides detailed access points for all these works, including each individual variation in the 'Hindemith' piece, for example. And the booklet notes are full and very well organised, including the full texts of the vocal pieces.

Terry Barfoot

 


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