This is one of a pair of CDs issued by BBC Legends
to mark the Walton centenary and it is invaluable on several counts.
Walton made many recordings of his music, including
most of his major works. However, with the exception of the four numbers
from Façade, none of the works on this disc were otherwise
recorded by him. Furthermore, we have here a recording of the world
premiere of the Hindemith Variations, a performance of the Cello
Concerto by Pierre Fournier who, so far as I am aware, never made a
commercial recording of the work and, finally, a rarity in the form
of the orchestral version of The Twelve which, I believe, is
not otherwise available in this form. So, this is a mouth-watering prospect
for Walton aficionados.
I don’t know why the Hindemith Variations aren’t heard
more often for they are masterly. The variations are concise, resourceful
and witty. They contain many of the characteristics of Walton’s style
and some traces of Hindemith’s style too (I’m thinking especially of
Variation 5 (Track 11)). The piece could be said to repay a thirty four
year-old debt for Walton never forgot the fact that Hindemith rescued
the première of his Viola Concerto in 1929 by taking on the solo
role at short notice and the two men were friends thereafter. Walton
based his variations on a theme from the second movement of Hindemith’s
Cello Concerto (1940). Furthermore he weaves a direct quotation of four
bars from Hindemith’s opera, Mathis der Maler into the seventh
variation (Track 13, 2’36"). Readers will have gathered that, sensibly,
each variation is tracked separately.
I deliberately decided not to compare this performance
with the great recording of the piece made in 1964 by George Szell and
the Cleveland Orchestra. It seemed to me that it would be unfair to
compare an account by a virtuoso orchestra which had played the piece
several times with a recording of the very first performance of the
work. In fact, Walton and his players need not fear comparisons for
theirs is a fluent, confident and assured performance of the work. The
players sound completely inside the piece and Walton’s direction is
as authoritative as one might expect. Whilst Szell’s account retains
its supremacy, I think, this is a notable addition not just to Walton’s
discography but also to that of the work itself.
The same is true of the performance of the Cello Concerto.
This work was written in 1956 for Gregor Piatigorsky and he gave the
first performance in Boston in January 1957 with the Boston Symphony
Orchestra under Charles Munch. Just a few weeks later these same artists
made the first recording which remains a benchmark account. The present
performance was given just two years later, presumably at the Edinburgh
Fascinatingly, this is a much fleeter account than
Piatigorsky’s. Indeed, Fournier and Walton take over five minutes less
(interestingly, the score quotes a duration of approximately 27 minutes.).
The differences come in the outer, predominantly slower, movements where
Piatigorsky is passionately romantic while Fournier tends to be more
patrician and restrained, though he certainly does not play down the
mood of gentle nostalgia which prevails in much of the work. Where the
music is more reflective Fournier’s cello sings out eloquently and throughout
he is poised and refined. I think Piatigorsky perhaps has a slight edge
in the quicker moments and to my ears he displays a degree of greater
urgency in the two cadenza passages of the finale, particularly the
first of these.
It is worth pointing out that Fournier is balanced
quite closely and this does mean that some details of the accompaniment
are lost, especially where the orchestra is playing quietly. The Boston
players can be heard to much better advantage (under studio conditions,
of course) and they do play the score magnificently. However, the RPO
are also diligent accompanists. There are no blemishes of the sort that
occurred in the performance of Walton’s First Symphony from the same
concert, which has been issued on a companion CD (BBC Legends BBCL 4097-2).
Perhaps more rehearsal time had been devoted to the concerto?
This Fournier/Walton performance is an excellent one.
As I’ve indicated, there are many points of contrast between this and
the Piatigorsky/Munch account. Both strike me as very convincing traversals
of the score and we’re lucky that we now have both to savour.
The two choral works on the disc both come from the
same concert which was given to mark the 900th anniversary
of the foundation of Westminster Abbey. For this occasion Walton orchestrated
his anthem, The Twelve, which had been written the year before
for his old Oxford college, Christ Church, and first performed there
with the original organ accompaniment only a few months before this
Westminster concert. I must confess I had no idea an orchestral version
existed. It is mighty effective and should be better known. Here the
piece receives a good, committed performance. The only snag is that
(as usual) BBC Legends stubbornly refuse to provide the text. This is
a definite drawback since Auden’s words are far from straightforward
and though the singers’ diction is pretty good one really needs to be
able to follow the text to appreciate the work fully.
The other work from the Abbey concert is the Coronation
Te Deum. This is a really splendid piece, I think, one of Walton’s
best choral pieces. It is performed magnificently here with a full-throated
contribution from the excellent choir who are balanced very well with
the orchestra. With the full panoply of the brass conferring a ceremonial
grandeur appropriate to the setting and the occasion, this is a thrilling
performance. How splendid it is to have such a fine recording of Walton
directing the work in the very building where it was first heard thirteen
To complete the disc there are four excerpts from Façade,
obviously taken from a Promenade concert. Three of them (‘Popular
Song’; ‘Old Sir Faulk’; and ‘Tarantella-Sevillana’) come from Suite
No 2 while ‘Tango-Pasodoble’ is from the first suite. They receive sprightly
and enthusiastic performances from the BBC Symphony Orchestra who sound
to be enjoying themselves. From the reaction at the end, it’s obvious
that the Promenaders did.
This is an invaluable disc. It is just the sort of
issue that make the BBC Legends series so important. All the performances
are very good and the sound quality is perfectly satisfactory (though
that of the Cello Concerto does show its age a bit). The notes are by
Lyndon Jenkins. They are good but it is slightly cheeseparing, I think,
to have used the same essay for both of these Walton issues with just
a very brief paragraph about each work However, that small quibble doesn’t
detract in the least from the significance of this issue. It is of the
utmost importance as an addition to the Walton discography and I recommend
it urgently to all admirers of this fine composer.
Also see review by Stephen