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Sir William WALTON (1902 - 1983)
Christopher Columbus - A Musical Journey (1942) [58.44] (concert version arr. 2002 Carl Davis and Patrick Garland)
Hamlet and Ophelia (1947) [12.27] (Suite arr. 1967 Muir Matheson from the Hamlet film score.)
Julian Glover, speaker ... Christopher Columbus
Jamie Glover, speaker ... ironic spirit / herald
Caroline Carragher, soprano ... Isabella
Jean Rigby, Mezzo-soprano ... Beatriz / woman
Philip Lloyd Holtam, speaker ... Sailor / voice
Craig Ogden, guitar; Tom Randle, tenor solo; Roderick Williams, baritone solo
BBC National Orchestra and Chorus of Wales/Richard Hickox
Nick Whiting, leader; Adrian Partington, chorus master
Recorded in Brangwyn Hall, Swansea, UK, 17 May 2004. Remastered to DSD.
Notes and complete text in English, Deutsch, Français. Photos of composer and artists. Hybrid SACD
CHANDOS CHSA 5034 [71.15]

 


The obvious comparison of Columbus is with Honegger’s King David, and Columbus bears up to this comparison quite well. The marches and fanfares are of course brilliant and effectively Iberian in mood. The songs and marches are easily as good as those by Honegger, but the choral music is not raptly contrapuntal since here the chorus represents Indians and sailors instead of angels. The narration sounds a little like a school play, but I guess there’s not much to be done when condensing a real radio drama into a few stentorian mood setters. But heard as a surround sound SACD the voices have a startling, almost disconcerting realism to them making for an arresting and dramatic entertainment. What is disappointing is that instead of filling the listening space, all the sound sources are on the "stage" and the rear channels are only ambient sound. Why bother to record six separate channels if no use is to be made of them? The audience-versus-stage perspective is an artefact of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. Many opportunities are missed in this work for rear channel/front channel antiphonies, for chorus versus soloists, speaker versus soloists, singer versus accompaniment. If all the rear channels are for is echo, that’s easy to fake and most players have it built in.

The 1942 heroics sound somewhat dated in 2005. Revisionist history has not been kind to Ferdinand and Isabella, who rank with Hitler in their enthusiasm for robbing and murdering Jews. It now seems likely that Columbus knew exactly where he was going because he talked to and read about others who had gone there before him, but I guess this is not proven.

The real treasure on this disk is Hamlet and Ophelia, twelve minutes of solemn reflective music gathered from various scenes in the 1947 Olivier film "Hamlet." This music was written at a tragic time for Walton as his friend Alice Wimbourne lay dying of cancer, so his musical settings for one of the greatest of English plays and films achieve a riveting intensity. One might think that music just for strings would make little demand on the recording system, however it turns out that string sound is one of the most difficult of all sounds to record, and the SACD sound is fully utilised to bring us this music. As usual lately, the CD tracks are amazingly close in quality to the SACD tracks so even if you don’t have an SACD player, you will enjoy all this music a great deal.

From the photo in the booklet we recognise Julian Glover as the robot tank commander in Empire Strikes Back. Hollywood loves British actors to portray evil villains who destroy and are destroyed without pity. Let’s hope somebody films some Simon Brett or Robert Barnard novels with some really nasty, stupid Americans in them for a change.

Aside: Producing minor works by well known composers may be more commercial than producing major works by less known composers, HOWEVER, it would be nice to see Chandos, Hickox, and the Welsh National Opera turn their estimable attentions to Sir Donald Francis Tovey’s "Bride of Dionysus," surely the greatest opera in English by an English composer so far never once produced in England. The two Edinburgh productions were received well by critics and public alike. It was scheduled for Glyndebourne in 1940, but the season was cancelled due to the war, and the work was never re-scheduled. Now that Peter Shore has engraved the entire score and parts and produced a full length MIDI file, one more excuse for ignoring Bride has been overcome. I have heard that MIDI file and I can tell you that this opera is far finer than much minor English opera that has been recently so enthusiastically produced. You deserve to hear it. Tovey deserves justice. Even the New York critics want to hear it! Every indication is that a recording would be a commercial success. Is anybody listening over there at Chandos? In Wales?

Paul Shoemaker



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