Here are two BBC Legends of unquestionable importance.
This performance of Belshazzar’s Feast is one to treasure. It
has a cumulative excitement that one can only experience in a live performance.
The opening is fairly low-key, with perhaps a degree of nervousness
and uncertainty among the performers, and the trombones preluding the
prophesy from Isaiah more sombrely than dramatically. But things settle
down fairly quickly. Donald McIntyre is a splendid baritone (although
he hangs on to the semi-quaver of ‘men’ at the end of the ‘shopping
list’) and once the feast is underway there is a real sense of drama,
the work ending with terrific punch and almost military precision.
Walton delivers an equally tough reading of the Symphony,
another masterpiece that like Belshazzar’s Feast never fails
to make an impact, marginally faster overall than a Prom performance
he gave five days before this Edinburgh Festival one. Then he conducted
the LSO instead of the RPO, and if it still exists in the BBC Archives
it would probably have been ruled out of selection because of the intrusion
of an early ‘Bravo!’ from a member of the audience who clearly did not
know how many slammed chords ended the work. In the performance on this
CD the composer conducting gives a no-nonsense edge and drive that other
conductors can’t quite match, just slightly underplaying the tension
in the slow movement which is the emotional heart of the work.
The main items of the second disc, the Cello Concerto
and the Hindemith Variations, have been available before: the
former was included in Volume 3 of ‘The Art of Pierre Fournier’, Arlecchino
ARLA66, and the latter (the work’s première), on Carlton Classics
BBC Radio Classics 15656 91782. The Fournier performance was in the
same Edinburgh Festival programme as the First Symphony (only the Partita
has not been transferred). The Promenade concert from which the Façade
extracts come was to have included a new overture (announced as Philharmonic
Overture N.Y. ’68 but eventually named Capriccio Burlesco)
but, as the announcer said, it was not ready in time so the Johannesburg
Festival Overture was played instead. If that was evidence of the
compositional difficulties that Walton was having, the Façade
extracts show he had lost nothing of his skills as a conductor. Seven
pieces were actually played in the concert, with Popular Song
encored; here we have just four of them, a CD playing time of 79 minutes
not allowing any more to be squeezed on. (Incidentally, the sleeve-note
is inaccurate in suggesting that Walton orchestrated numbers from Façade
for an interlude in Berners’ The Triumph of Neptune. A good number
of British works were used a ‘symphonic interludes’ during Diaghilev’s
ballet programmes but they were not composed expressly for that purpose.
The first Façade suite more than likely had its premiere
in the programme that included The Triumph of Neptune because
Walton had helped out Berners by orchestrating four of the numbers.)
The particular importance of this second CD is that
it preserves the composer’s interpretations of works of which he made
no commercial recording, apart from the Façade suites.
Even then there are elements of wit and sheer fun in the Façade
items that are absent from his studio recordings. The beginning of the
Cello Concerto will surprise some listeners: with an overall timing
of just over 23 minutes Walton sets much faster tempi than either Wallfisch
and Thomson on Chandos or Piatigorsky and Sargent at the first London
performance (not issued), both performances taking over 30 minutes.
Walton’s sharper pacing is evident from the very opening. The Twelve
and the Coronation Te Deum both come from a concert shared with
Boult to mark the nine-hundredth anniversary of the foundation of Westminster
Abbey, this being the first performance of The Twelve in orchestral
dressing. These are quite simply CDs that should not be missed.