Sir William Walton was a fine conductor of his own
music and he recorded much of it. This BBC Legends CD, issued to mark
his centenary, contains two of his very greatest works, both of which
he had previously recorded at least once under studio conditions.
The performance of Belshazzar’s Feast, which
opens the disc, is the more recent of the two recordings here
and, despite some imperfections it is a good performance. Donald McIntyre
is in firm and sonorous voice, especially in his opening solo, ‘If I
forget thee’. He sings the famous "shopping list" well, though
I have heard more characterful accounts, but I felt he lacked subtlety
in the episode of the Writing on the Wall, particularly when set against
the incomparable Dennis Noble in the première recording, also
conducted by Walton, in 1943.
The combined choirs sing lustily for the composer,
some tiny blemishes apart. They are also quite well forward in the sound
picture. In some ways this is welcome but too often important orchestral
details fail to tell as they should, I found. (Of course, it must be
remembered that the recording was never intended for repeated domestic
listening.) On the frequent occasions where the choir is divided Choir
Two (on the conductor’s right) sounds weaker than Choir One. This may
be due to microphone placing but repeated listening suggested to me
that the balance is actually a faithful representation and that Choir
One was the stronger on the night.
One of the weakest passages in the performance is the
reflective interlude for semi-chorus in the middle of the final tumult,
‘While the kings of the earth lament’ (Track 8, 2’32"). Here, I’m
sorry to report, the singers sound laboured and strained as they do
in the following passage ‘The trumpeters are silent’ (Track 9). This
is a pity for it detracts from the overall performance.
The orchestra generally plays well, though the trumpeters
are taxed by the difficult writing at ‘blow up the trumpet in the new
moon’ (Track 8, 1’00") As I mentioned earlier some detail is not
as clear as one would like: in general the horns are too backwardly
balanced and the percussion does not sound as incisive as it should.
Having said that, I imagine that many collectors would buy this as a
second version in order to appreciate Walton’s own interpretation of
his piece. In that event occasional blemishes and slight vagaries of
balance may not matter so much. On the positive side the "Hammer
House of Horrors" scoring for the writing on the wall (Track 7,
0’33") is suitably creepy and is well reproduced here.
Based on a comparison with his other two recordings
I would say that this performance is a fair reflection of Walton’s view
of the piece, which remained pretty consistent. Speeds are not excessively
rushed (thank goodness) and the spirit of this remarkable work is well
conveyed. That said, Walton’s other two recordings are most certainly
not superseded. He first recorded the work in 1943 with the (then) Liverpool
Philharmonic Orchestra and the Huddersfield Choral Society. This is,
by any standards, a pretty remarkable achievement. Both choir and orchestra
must have been depleted by the demands of wartime. Moreover, the work
was then only 12 years old – it was "contemporary music".
Notwithstanding all this the performance is remarkably assured with
the Huddersfield choir, trained by the legendary Herbert Bardgett seeming
completely on top of the music. The soloist, Dennis Noble, has never
been bettered on record and Walton conducts an electrifying performance.
His tempi are the liveliest of his three recorded versions, though never
excessive. The recording is pretty good for its age, too. His second
recording, made in 1959 with the Philharmonia Orchestra and Chorus,
is the one to have if you want his interpretation in the best sound.
It benefits from tremendously incisive playing and choral singing though
the soloist, Donald Bell, is a disappointment. As I said, interpretatively
there is little to choose between the three versions.
The recording of the First Symphony was made in 1959,
presumably at the Edinburgh Festival. It comes from the same concert
as the account of the Cello Concerto which BBC Legends have issued on
a companion CD. Like Belshazzar, Walton had previously made a
studio recording of this work with the Philharmonia, in 1951. Here in
Edinburgh he shaves some two minutes off the total timing of that earlier
recording (principally in the first and third movements) but I’m not
at all sure that the implied greater urgency was entirely a positive
The allegro passages of the first movement go at a
cracking pace but, candidly, the playing is pretty scrappy in places.
The rather acerbic recording makes this all too clear for the microphone
placings highlight individual sections in a rather merciless way. (Again,
one must remember, this recording was not designed for repeated listening.)
In fact, the untidiness and occasional fluffs do serve to underline
what a difficult score this is (though in 1935 the LSO were well on
top of the notes when making the first recording with Sir Hamilton Harty
only weeks after the work’s full première.) I wonder if the members
of the RPO were disconcerted by Walton’s urgent speeds in the first
movement (among the CDs I have only Harty himself takes less time for
this movement). Alternatively, perhaps rehearsal time was too short.
Matters improve quite a bit in the fiendish scherzo,
which is well played though I felt it lacked the last ounce of malice.
The slow movement is suitably passionate but here above all the recording
does not really do the players any favours for there is little warmth
in the sound. Untidiness returns at the start of the finale but, ironically,
when the going gets tougher in the main allegro the playing is better
and is certainly spirited, leading to a rousing conclusion.
I’m sorry to sound critical of this performance but
the BBC Legends series, though invaluable, retails at upper/mid price
and so comparisons are appropriate. I think that the 1951 Philharmonia
recording is a much better memento of Walton in this work (indeed, as
a performance I’d rank it very highly, only surpassed by Previn’s LSO
recording on BMG and by Rattle with the CBSO on EMI.)
There is a little audience noise in the symphony, but
nothing that is intrusive. I was not aware of the audience in Belshazzar
– perhaps all the coughers were hauled off in chains to Babylon before
the performance started! Lyndon Jenkins provides a characteristically
well-informed and interesting note.
In summary, then, this is a valuable document though
the performances are not flawless and there must be reservations about
the sound quality in the symphony. Collectors who possess Walton’s studio
accounts of these works can rest easy. Those who don’t have his highly
desirable interpretations of either work should certainly investigate
but I’d recommend you to sample before buying.
Also see review by Stephen