> William Walton - Symphony No.2 [RB]: Classical Reviews- March 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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William WALTON (1902-1983)
Symphony No. 2 (1959-60)
Variations on a Theme of Hindemith (1962-3)
Partita (1957)
Violin Concerto (1938-9)
Belshazzar's Feast (1930-1)
Capriccio Burlesco

Johannesburg Festival Overture

Zino Francescatti (violin)
Walter Cassel (bar)
Rutgers University Choir
Philadelphia Orchestra/Eugene Ormandy
Cleveland Orchestra/Georg Szell (Symphony, Variations, Partita)
New York PO/André Kostelanetz (overture and capriccio)
Rec late 1950s-early 1970s
SONY SB2K89934 [CD1: 72.21; CD2: 70.41]


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All of the companies have had some form of salute for Walton in this year of the centenary of the Oldham-born composer. Sony were not going to be left behind and just as well for us because CBS made some indispensable Walton recordings during the 1960s. These two discs breathe new life into some fabled analogue recordings.

We start with the Johannesburg Festival Overture - which with the Capriccio (dedicated to Kostelanetz) is the most recent recording. The Overture is given an intensely rapid tick-over. Walton's sympathies were for warmer southern climes witness most of his music, his wife and his home in Ischia. The Overture blethers and raves touched with a warm picaresque wildness from as early as Portsmouth Point (and presumably also as far back as the totally ignored Doctor Syntax overture). Great brass and woodwind playing from the New Yorkers and a similarly cracking and exultant airing for the Capriccio Burlesco. Wonderful recording quality too.

Szell's Clevelanders cornered the Walton market during the 1950s into the 1960s and here are three substantial works in their premiere recordings anywhere.

The Second Symphony is divided from its predecessor by a world war and more than twenty years. The lento middle movement is an elysian reflection in a style surprisingly Baxian (at 0900) as is 4.30 of the finale. It separates two eight minute movements; the first being as wildly active as the Festival Overture though without the carefree element. It is furiously violent instead. The finale is impressive too at 6.30 with its raven-cawing trombones. For some reason the otherwise very competent booklet notes have nothing to say about the Symphony. The Symphony was recorded in the 1970s by Previn, the LSO and EMI and that is a more refined and lustrous recording than this. As a work it lacks the Odysseyan qualities of the First Symphony.

The zestful Hindemith Variations are on a theme from the second movement of Hindemith's cello concerto with material from the opera Mathis der Maler referred to passim. Sadly Hindemith's death in the early 1960s prevented a plan for the German composer to conduct the work. If this had happened it would have brought a theme full circle - in 1929, after Tertis had spurned the Viola Concerto, Hindemith had given the premiere. Walton conducted the London premiere with the LPO who had commissioned the work. Szell was the first to conduct the piece in the USA. Despite its mere 22 minutes it exudes a serious symphonic character. Recording quality extremely satisfactory though at 16.20 in the variations I noticed some pre-echo.

Szell directed the first performance of the Partita with the Clevelanders for whose fortieth anniversary the work had been commissioned. The composer set out to write a heavy duty divertimento avoiding the great issues. He did not quite succeed in that for their are dense and dark shadows in this music and great issues are hinted at in the linkages with the music he had written for Troilus and Cressida (first movement only). The Pastorale which sets oboe and viola principals against each other in a classical rondo of Grecian warmth and restraint where the wind writing sometimes suggests Nielsen. Although written for larger forces its three five minute movements can be bracketed with the sinfoniettas and suites by his friend and collaborator, Malcolm Arnold. I came away from hearing this work again with a very high regard for the Partita which has more of the authentic Waltonian spark and humour (the latter especially in the last movement) than the other two Cleveland works.

Francescatti is in vibrantly rough-toned, explosively responsive and generous hearted for the Violin Concerto. He is full of character and nothing passes by him in reticence or anonymity. On the marginal downside the orchestral detailing from the 'Fabulous Philadelphians' is finely hazed by the warm sound-image. He does not give routine performances and his Sony-CBS recordings of the Brahms and the Sibelius concertos are just as intriguing. His granitic, brilliant spark casting vivace is superb.

If the concerto jostles with my first recommendations (the Heifetz/Sargent mono - BMG and the Haendel/Berglund analogue stereo - EMI) this excellent Belshazzar is not going to be my first choice. I like the EMI recording - the one with Previn and the LSO as well as the Willcocks version on Chandos. Each have big choirs with a great feeling of mass and volume. The Rutgers University Choir sound either set back in the soundstage or smaller or both. While much more incisively coached, shaped, enunciated and coordinated (by F Austin Walter) the effect in terms of impact from this choral point of view is comparable with the old CFP LP of Hallé forces conducted by James Loughran. Walter Cassel sometimes sounds tremulous where an oleaginous black vocal viscosity is what is needed. Ormandy and Philadelphians give an alert, vibrant and shatteringly emphatic performance.

Belshazzar was a blessed liberation was from the stultifying prolixity of so many British cantatas from the 1850s onwards. It was the best known emancipatory key to works such as Fricker's A Vision of Judgement (an outstanding work in its own right) and Finzi's Intimations of Immortality. Inn more recent times its influence can be heard in works by the British composers Mathias, Williamson and Todd. It was not a completely revolutionary work and examination of earlier works is likely to be rewarding. I have in mind Delius's A Mass of Life, John Foulds' World Requiem, Patrick Hadley's The Hills, Havergal Brian's Gothic Symphony, Cyril Rootham's Ode on the Morning of Christ's Nativity and, closer to Philadelphia, Robert Nathaniel Dett's Ordering of Moses, Howard Hanson's Lament of Beowulf, Leroy Robertson's Book of Mormon and Cecil Effinger's St Paul.

Much of what is on this set was available on a 1983 CBS LP boxed set (CBS 6 79411). Such are the bounteous virtues of the compact disc that the only things included in that 4 LP set which could not be squeezed onto these two CDs are a Façade (Sitwell and Prausnitz) and the Doktor/LPO/Downes version of the Viola Concerto.

The words for Belshazzar are printed in full. Poor marks for not naming the note writer and for failing to detail the dates and locations of the recording sessions. There is a measure of hiss on all these recordings less so for the two Kostelanetz items. However everything here is derived from analogue sources.

There is no competition for this contrasting collection of prime and late mature Walton; the latter in authoritative versions; the former brimming with character. Inexpensive too.

Rob Barnett


Variations on a Theme by Hindemith (1962-3) Columbia SAX2575 (1965)
Symphony No. 2 (1959-60) from SAX2459 (1962)
Belshazzar's Feast (1930-1) from CBS SBRG72025 (1962).
Partita for Orchestra (1957) from SAX2459 (1962)
Violin Concerto (1938-9) from Philips SABL191 (1961)
Johannesburg Festival Overture and Capriccio burlesco from CBS 61365 (1974).

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