The Bournemouth Orchestra have long had a special place
in my affections. In the early 1970s, while studying at Bristol they
were the orchestra I heard month after month at the Colston Hall. These
were the Berglund years, as ripely vintage as the Järvi years in
Glasgow in the early 1990s with the (then) SNO. I also heard people
like Reinhard Peters and Volker Wangenheim - the former in Schumann;
the latter in Bruckner. Before that I heard the orchestra in Torquay
and Exeter in Brahms, Sibelius (5) and Tchaikovsky. This was long before
Andrew Litton appeared on the scene.
In the First Symphony this version projects
a taut singing tension (5.02 in I) which lacks the vividness by comparison
with Handley's EMI Classics recording from the 1990s with the same orchestra.
Make no mistake this is a performance with vibrant strengths and it
is piloted by Litton as if driven by vengeful furies. On this basis
I wonder why his Shostakovich (to be heard on Dorian and Delos) has
not been more successful. To get a representative impression of this
version sample the finale which is white hot with a fusion of voices
from Sibelius's Fourth, Debussy's La Mer and Vaughan Williams'
Fourth. I hope I am not being too obvious in suggesting that this version
would sit well with the 1930s symphonies of Roy Harris, William Schuman,
Creston and Peter Mennin. Litton is an American and even if he has not
explored the repertoire of his homeland the similarities are patent.
Is it any coincidence that another American, André Previn also
produced the reference version of the Symphony now on a BMG double.
Cohen's Cello Concerto is dashing and studiedly
poetic rather than wildly impassioned. He has a fevered edgy tone but
in the flanking slower movements Cohen and Litton are able to capture
a sweetly rhapsodic reflection. I confess I have not heard such an explosive
expostulation as is conjured up by Litton at 6.13 in the Tema ed
improvvisazioni. Does it all add up? I remain to be convinced but
not because of Litton rather because, like the Viola Concerto, I feel
that Walton missed the compulsive passion and durability that for me
is radiant throughout the Violin Concerto and the Sinfonia Concertante.
Scapino was written for the Frederick
Stock's Chicagoans. It is picaresque, jazzy, ardent and tense in the
manner of Arthur Benjamin's Overture to an Italian Comedy, Bernstein's
Candide Overture and Bax's Overture to a Picaresque Comedy.
Litton's approach is high voltage, dashing and meaty.
The Violin Concerto enjoys the same beefy audio
'attack' and concrete impact as the other discs. Nothing is apologetic
or softened. Tasmin Little (well known and loved for her advocacy of
British works) strikes me as having learnt something from the febrile
impassioned relentlessness of Ida Haendel whose own version of the Walton
concerto (again with Bournemouth though this time with Berglund) is
amongst the finest of versions alongside Accardo and the even more frantic
vibrato of Francescatti on Sony). Now come on Tasmin please team up
with Handley and give us a world-beating version of the Bax and Moeran
The Second Symphony bears witness to the continuing
Americanisation of the Walton idiom - perhaps understandable given the
adulation he attracted from Cleveland's Georg Szell whose foundation-dedicatee
recording has recently been reissued on Sony. Melodrama and the sort
of angst we expect from a Schuman or Hartmann score are to be found
here. Apart from the fact that the black melodrama of the start of the
finale sounds bleached out beside the rapacious tension of the Szell
version this is well worth hearing if still bowing to the Previn EMI recording
from the early 1970s. Litton does not bend every bar in the direction
of Transatlantic anxiety. The Lento assai middle movement sounds
much more Elgarian than I have previous heard. A surprise.
The Te Deum and Belshazzar's Feast
were recorded in Winchester Cathedral and benefit from its lively
reverberation. This is exploited rather than allowed free rein. The
choirs are very well drilled in Belshazzar and their precision
deserves praise especially given the fact that they sound large and
massed. Bryn Terfel and Litton have the knack of suggesting great breadth
and expanse. In fact the work proceeds no more slowly than most versions.
Terfel revels in the work's many challenges and his wondrous breath
control and steadiness, as well as a voice of molasses and amontillado,
make this a very strong contender. I rather prefer it over the Willcocks
version but the Previn and Shirley-Quirk EMI Classics of the early
1970s is still better. The choral contribution in the closing celebrations
(which can often seem a disappointment after the earlier hymning of
the pagan Gods!) is tumultuously overpowering yet always in control.
The choir is less well drilled and coordinated in the
Te Deum though they convince utterly at the close. Never have
I heard the final section of the work done with such meditative concentration
and hushed tension slowly released. I compared this with EMI's 1970s
recording of Frémaux and the City of Birmigham Symphony Orchestra.
That disc (still available on CD) had the two marches, Te Deum and
the Gloria. Disc 4 in this Decca set has the same works (excluding
the Gloria but adding Belshazzar and the Henry V suite.
The Decca recording from a quarter century later is
more natural but the EMI recording is a delight with clever balances
analytically bringing out hosts of instrumental detail in the marches
which in the Decca case are resolved into the generality. Gramophone's
Edward Greenfield came up with the enviably adroit phrase for the two
marches: 'shatteringly apt displays of pomp and circumstance'. In the
hands of Litton and the BSO the two marches are as splendid as you might
wish with slam, swing and impact. You will have been spoilt though if
you know the Frémaux versions not so much because of the performances
but because the EMI recording intriguingly reveals more detail amid
the ringing magnificence and splendid wash of purple sound. Incidentally
am I alone in regarding the years Frémaux had with the CBSO as
a vintage era? Had he lived until a coronation of Charles III, would
Walton really have called the 'third' coronation march Bed Majestical?
Somehow I doubt it though we might, in the light of Royal events of
the last twenty years, muse quizzically on the prospect and the resonances
of such a title.
CD3 (Façade Suites, Viola Concerto and
Hindemith Variations) has been issued as an individual disc in
the same series (470 511-2). I rather wish the Façades
had been dropped and that jazzy Cinderella work, the Sinfonia Concertante
had been included. That said these Façade sequences
are suitably sultry-sleazy. A smaller ensemble might have yielded even
greater satisfaction. Façade does not need the deep pile
of a large number of instruments. It does not translate well to full
orchestra. However if you would like to sample the orchestral version
this is very good benefiting from Litton's patent sympathy with the
jazziness and an aura of Weill, the Berliner and Auric the Parisian.
The, for me, problematic Viola Concerto is given
a strong account by everyone; not least the little heard of Paul Neubauer.
Neubauer should have far more attention as his BBC broadcast (circa
1980) of the Arthur Benjamin Viola Sonata shows. He really should be
snapped up to record Stanley Bate's and Arthur Butterworth's Viola Concertos.
His tone is slender and shapely and he responds as well to the two poetic
buttressing movements of the Walton as to the fairy-tale fantasy of
the superb central Vivo (this tripartite slow-fast-slow seems
to have been an English thing - viz the Delius and Moeran concertos).
The skilful pointillism and playfulness of the Hindemith fleshes
out the third disc of the set. Its juxtaposition with the Viola Concerto
is apt given that Hindemith premiered the Concerto when it was disdained
by Lionel Tertis. You can still hear Szell's CBS version of the Variations
on an all-Walton Sony collection. Litton spins things along at riptide
speed - glittering and glinting yet singing too. Recordings are not
numerous but this modern version is the one to go for both on technical
and artistic grounds.
By the way you can banish any doubts about a 'provincial'
orchestra, Bournemouth cast those contemptuously aside years ago with
their golden EMI recordings of Silvestri's In the South and Berglund's
All the sung words are printed in the booklet - not
to be taken for granted in this Decca series. The notes, which are apt
and useful, are variously by Diana McVeagh (will her Finzi biography
ever see the light of day?), Kenneth Chalmers (a regular for this series),
Michael Kennedy and Raymond McGill.
Packaging is economical but smart. A card flap box
of moderate stiffness houses a single booklet and four CDs each in its
own sombre heraldic sleeve. The approach is similar to that in the EMI Classics
boxes of Vaughan Williams symphonies (Boult) and Sibelius symphonies
These are cracking performances and recordings replete
with a myriad details that will please and enthral. Recording quality
is in Decca's best and healthiest digital tradition. The bargain price
makes the whole thing irresistible. If your collecting and listening
during the nineteen-nineties denied you the full price issues now is