Here’s rich! Eight CDs worth of prime Walton (though
some, I grant you, might argue over the Menuhin versions of the concertos)
direct from the EMI stable. And all for the pauperly sum of £23.99.
That’s the cost of two full price CDs. Put it another way. That’s just
less than £3.00 per CD. OK when some of these recordings were sold back
in the days of LP each black disc cost about £2.50 (circa 1973) at what
was then full price. However given the cost of living increases since
the 1970s this set is as ‘cheap as chips’.
As for the concept it is summed up by the modest ‘A
Walton Collection’. All praise to EMI for such reticence when the temptation
must have been to call it ‘The Walton Collection’. This collection
gathers together, straight off the warehouse shelves, a clutch of mid-price
(‘British Composers’ series) CDs, places them in a light card slipcase
and shrink-wraps them for an appreciative market. At the same time EMI
doff the hat with panache to the Walton centenary year and for 2003
mark twenty years having passed since Walton’s death.
There are many long-known friends here and for the
most part the friendship has been easily renewed.
The Walton version of the First Symphony is pretty
special. It is in mono and despite being fifteen years older (1951)
is in sound of broader amplitude than Previn’s mordantly dramatic stereo
recording from circa 1966. The excellent Previn is available as part
of a BMG twofer issued during this centenary year. The Belshazzar impresses
but does not have quite the bite of his first recording - now preserved
Menuhin’s account of the Violin Concerto sounds strained
and laboured. Although emphatically accented and clearly recorded it
does not smoke and flame or fly and dazzle as it does in other hands.
I must accept that things do ripen in the finale though even that lumbers
dangerously at times. Haendel, Heifetz (both versions - but supremely
the Sargent conducted second version), Accardo, Francescatti, Joshua
Bell and even Azizian (the latter on a rare-ish ClassicO) are to be
preferred. I have not heard Kennedy. While the Violin Concerto is not
beyond redemption (there are quite a few things to relish) Menuhin seems
somnolent in the Viola Concerto. Walton elicits gorgeous sounds from
the orchestra in both works and there is an eager snappiness in the
middle movement of the viola work but otherwise this is not recommendable
as a sole version of either concerto.
More vintage Walton next … this time from a later era
when André Previn was at a stage in his career where tension
and vitality were in close step with the essential Walton. He never
once lost his footing from the mid 1960s recording of the First Symphony
for RCA (BMG) to the EMI Second Symphony. EMI flatter Belshazzar
with a recording that of saturatedly accommodating amplitude. It
still intensifies the burnished rolling golden horn tone as well as
opening out and meeting at full tilt the power of the London Symphony
Chorus. This is a very clean recording achieving wondrous clarity. The
music is rich in each and every strand and in the interplay of caramel
and venom. As a performance it is, by the merest shading, not as strong
as the 1940s original (Pearl) although the accents sound less affected.
The visceral whoop and blast of this music is superbly achieved (try
tr 10 at 03.01). The Britten Improvisations are the original
LP coupling for Belshazzar. They are Partita-like. It is such a pity
that at that stage in Previn’s career he did not record the Varii
Capricci. They would have ideally suited his nervy brilliance which
is fully on display in the rip and snort of Portsmouth Point and
Frémaux’s CBSO Crown Imperial and Orb
and Sceptre coupled with the Gloria and the Coronation
Te Deum are smashing performances with a high excitement quotient.
The recording quality is dazzling with opulent depth (those sickle-toned
harp sweeps in the Crown Imperial!) and virile impact. I have
treasured these recordings since they were first issued on LP in the
late 1970s. They have not been trounced by any of the competition. The
mass of directional information in the Te Deum is splendid alluding
by illusion to more than a pedestrian two channels. Frémaux was
not made enough of while he was with the City of Birmingham Symphony.
Both Hugo Rignold (responsible for a ripely recorded and imaginative
mid-1960s Lyrita LP recording of Bliss’s Blow Meditations and
Music for Strings) and Harold Gray were more obscure characters.
The clouds only parted slightly further for Frémaux whose Studio
4 EMI LP of Massenet’s ballet music from Le Cid is also classic
stuff. A Frémaux Walton First Symphony would, on this showing,
have been a cherishable thing and his Second would also have been worth
having. Simon Rattle’s advent spelt the blossoming onto the international
stage of the Birmingham’s pride and joy but Frémaux is in danger
of being utterly and unjustly forgotten.
And then we come to the film music. Carl Davis's collection
is on a single CD. Davis selects Sargent's suite from the Henry V music
complete with choral parts taken by the London Philharmonic Choir. It
is most vividly recorded with aggressive immediacy. The suite is rather
limited in its choice flanking The Death of Falstaff and Touch
Her Soft Lips with the antique atmosphere of the Prelude The
Globe and The Agincourt Song. The choir blast out the jubilation
of victory in the Song but the symmetry is weakened by the elision the
music for the battle.
Colin Matthews arranged a suite from music Walton wrote
for The Battle of Britain. This was its first recording given
a very subtly contrived aural realism though without the roughening
of grittier edginess experienced on the soundtrack album. Battle
in the Air was well known from the film soundtrack but the March
and Siegfried Music were silently concealed from view when the Walton
score was dumped by the studio. The march is a peaceful affably Elgarian
amble without the barbed swagger of the concert marches. Much the same
can be said of the A History of the English Speaking Peoples written
for TV. This has a semblance of the vintage Waltonian manner but lacks
effervescent tension and inventive edge. Christopher Palmer's notes
(always a good read!) quite rightly point up the ‘marching’ parallels
I do not need to say much about the Walton conducts
Walton's film music disc except to say that this is superb. Mostly
mono of course and the tapes are getting on a bit but there is no substitute
for these recordings. The wreathed crown among these garlanded treasures
is the so-called Scenes from Henry V (licensed from BMG) in which
Olivier orates selected lines by the King as well as a selection of
lines from other characters. It all works well and of course there is
nothing to beat that rustling-rattling shudder of the great flight of
arrows faithfully recorded here. The price you pay for such authenticity
a recording nearly sixty years old in the case of the Henry Scenes and
the whiskery hubbub of 78 background noise.
The Act II Interlude from the opera Troilus and
Cressida is not film music but is an apt companion given its retching
double portrayal of a storm and of the wild love-making of the two named
characters. This is given by Davis with no holds barred intensity.
As you like it starts extremely strongly with
Walton imitating Sibelius in the buoyant confidence of the Title
Music; a track with which to surprise and puzzle knowledgeable friends.
There are quite a few Daphnis-like movements here as in the sunrise
and waterfall scenes. Which reminds me: earlier, in the creepy music,
to Battle in the Air we are reminded of Ravel’s music for Ma
The one double CD package in this set clasps together
the one-act opera or ‘extravaganza’ The Bear (based on a Chekhov story
adapted by Paul Dehn and the composer) with some other minor oddments.
There is no libretto but the voices are clear enough. This piece reminded
me of Samuel's Barber's witty A Hand of Bridge and Lennox Berkeley's
A Dinner Engagement . This is an intimate opera - rather a conversation
piece. Track 12 stirs memories of Pandarus's fooling around in Troilus
and in track 14 it is not just the use of French that summons up thoughts
of Poulenc. Weill is another reference point (tr.16). The recording
is from the 1967 Aldeburgh Festival production. This is closer to Bernstein
and Sondheim’s music theatre than ‘conventional grand opera’.
Façade is sonorously recorded and is
full of character though how thin as a musical experience. The sound
of words is everything; their meaning goes for nothing. Try Flanders
in track 4. Brymer, Bennett and Wilbraham all put in strong appearances.
The modest and peaceable entertainment of The Wise Virgins music
completes this set.
What about the sound quality here? Well if you need
to tot up these matters please note that of the eight discs there are
seven ADDs and one DDD, the latter being the Carl Davis (film music
suites). Everything is stereo apart from the Walton/Philharmonia First
Symphony and the Henry V scenes - the latter liberated or licensed
from RCA-BMG. The vintage is from 1953 to 1987 with most of the tracks
falling into the 1970s. Perhaps in years to come the provenance of these
recordings, largely from a time while Walton was alive, will be seen
as significant. Three of the discs comprise recordings directed by Walton
himself - part of EMI’s own ‘The Walton Edition’. The remainder fall
to Frémaux, Marriner, Lockhart, Davis and Previn.
As for the competition …. There is the complete Walton
tome from Chandos (20 plus discs). This is probably still available
direct from Chandos and has many strengths including an excellent Belshazzar
amid many other fine things. The Sony 2CD set has an exceptionally fine
and orchestrally lusty Belshazzar conducted by Ormandy. This
would have swept the board if only his choirs had been larger. It also
has the benefit of Francescatti’s very romantic no-holds-barred violin
concerto. The Decca box drawn from Litton’s golden sessions in Bournemouth
is on 5 CDs - well worth considering for its succession of key works
recorded brilliantly in 1990s digital for about the same price. Litton
is, after all, the man who produced the top version of Korngold’s Sinfonietta
with the Dallas orchestra (Dorian). The BMG double is outstanding and
the best single twofer, with RCA’s 1960s Previn Walton Symphony No.
1 as the ‘crown imperial’. None of these are direct comparisons with
the EMI set although I would just point out that in sheer grocerly terms,
by spending two and a half times the cost of either of the double CDs,
you would be able to get this set with its many refulgent splendours
and few misfires which runs to four times the number of CDs even if
you end up with two Belshazzars.