> William Walton - Belshazzar's Feast [JQ]: Classical CD Reviews- Sept 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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William WALTON (1902-1983)
Belshazzar’s Feast [36’26"]
Symphony No 1 in B flat minor* [41’17"]
Donald McIntyre (baritone)
BBC Chorus
BBC Choral Society
Christ Church Harmonic Choir
BBC Symphony Orchestra
*Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Conducted by Sir William Walton
Recordings: Royal Festival Hall, London, 22 September 1965; *Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 23 August 1959
BBC Legends BBCL 4097-2 [77’43"]


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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 thing.

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.

John Quinn

Also see review by Stephen Lloyd


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