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William WALTON (1902-1983)
Symphony No. 1 in B flat minor (1933) [42:15]
Philharmonia Orchestra/Herbert von Karajan
rec. King’s Way Hall, London, 15 January 1951. ADD
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 457 433-2GH SACD [42:15]

Richard Osborne recently recalled how Herbert von Karajan frequently visited William Walton in the early 1950s. It transpired that the rising conductor paid attention to Walton’s music after World War II because he wanted to establish credibility with the British forces as well as with a public who might still be harbouring anti-German feelings.

In the 1950s Karajan conducted works by Britten and Vaughan Williams - as rites of passage to get in with the British establishment as well as to become popular with English music lovers. Karajan’s ambition was to make recordings with Walter Legge’s newly formed Philharmonia Orchestra - and thus establish his conducting career in London. Later in life Karajan said to Osborne that he would only conduct the Philharmonia providing all the players were white and that there were no Jews, homosexuals or women included.

What was kept secret and locked in the vaults for over fifty years was Karajan’s ‘trial’ studio recording session of Walton’s First Symphony in B flat minor recorded with the Philharmonia on 15 January 1951 - and recorded again with the RAI Rome (Italian Radio Symphony) Orchestra on 5 December 1953 (which was recently issued: Karajan: EMI Great Conductors of the 20th Century 36 5 62869 2 79:52; 79:41).

Osborne recalled that only Legge and Walton were allowed to attend the ‘closed’ trial recording sessions. The composer walked out after the first movement because of Karajan’s re-touchings and the addition of extra orchestral parts for brass and woodwind. To Walton’s horror and surprise Karajan even added four Wagner Tubas.

Whilst Walton was annoyed about Karajan’s re-writing of his work he did compliment the conductor after the session for bringing out the dark dissonances and sheer savagery of the score. He said that it was easily the "best performance he had ever heard" - even despite his reservations about Karajan’s re-scorings. It is well known, however, that Walton always said the most recent recording he heard of his First Symphony were "the best he had ever heard" – including the recordings by Boult, Sargent, and Previn.

Even so, Walton refused to give Legge the right to issue Karajan’s ‘touched-up’ account - despite the session - taped in one day - being a total success where conducting, orchestral playing and recording were concerned. EMI played safe and issued Walton’s own account recorded in October 1951 - just ten months after Karajan’s – and again with the Philharmonia at the Kingsway Hall, London. Although authoritative it lacked the manic drive and white heat of Karajan’s account.

Whilst the tapes remained the property of EMI, Karajan had not been officially paid for the recording sessions because it was just a ‘trial run through’. He insisted on taking the tapes as his fee and donated them to Deutsche Grammophon Gesellschaft (DGG) after signing a life-time contract with them. There the tapes remained, long thought lost – and certainly forgotten – until early this year (2006) after some reels were recovered from a fire at the DG archive in Hamburg. It is through the courtesy of EMI that DG have now been allowed to release this highly important historical document. Also as the Philharmonia now record for DG they were only too pleased for them to make this historic document available to the public for the first time.

The tempi throughout are on the brisk side – even quicker than Previn’s renowned LSO account. Karajan’s reading is not slick and superficial but beautifully measured, mastering the structure of the score and making it sound Germanic; more Bruckner than Walton.

The First Movement: Allegro assai is the embodiment of evil, bursting with the energy of a volcanic eruption with the brass sounding like explosive lava. Karajan gives the processional coda thrusting drive and radiant power - as he does in the closing moments of the first movement of Bruckner 8. The colossal closing climax with a shattering succession of stamping brass chords and hammering timpani conveys an unrelenting savagery which makes the music sound strangely Nazi-like under Karajan’s brute direction. Uncannily, the CD cover sports Karajan making what looks like a Nazi salute.

The Scherzo is marked Presto, con malizia (very fast, with malice) – and is similar in mania and malice to the second movement of Shostakovich 10. Here Karajan is at his brilliant best. Never has this music sounded so cutting and brutal with spellbinding playing from the Phliharmonia.

The slow third movement's Andante con Malincolia, has a serene and sometimes severe mood with the superlative Philharmonia strings sounding sublime. Certainly they do not sound like this anymore. Karajan gave the Andante a sense of nervous urgency and underlying pulsation as if anticipating some dramatic trauma to come. Here the conductor evokes an ever-evolving stream of sensations, shape-shifting multiple moods. These range from sweet sentimentality to black bitter sweetness, to dark dread, to alien anxiety.

The: Maestoso; Brioso ed Ardemente is taut and tough with Karajan securing jagged and buoyant rhythms that make the menacing music seem to dance wildly to death. In the closing passages the accompanying two timpanists – playing perfectly in unison - have a shuddering intensity I have never heard before.

This is by far the greatest account that I have ever heard of this symphony on either LP or CD easily surpassing the anodyne, anaemic and etiolated performances by Ashkenazy, Gibson, Litton, Rattle, Slatkin, Thomson, and Haitink. Karajan’s dramatic and powerful account is only matched by a ‘live’ recording made by Sir Charles Mackerras and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra from their 1980/81 concert season.

This ‘historic’ performance is very well recorded for its age, sounding spacious and full bodied despite the mono sound. Very highly recommended.

Alex Russell

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