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  Founder: Len Mullenger
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William WALTON (1902-1983)
Symphony No. 1 in b-flat minor. (1931-35) [46:01]
London Symphony Orchestra/Sir Colin Davis
rec. 23 September and 5 December 2005, Barbican Centre, London.
LSO LIVE LSO0076 [46:01]


The 1930s were particularly fruitful years for the symphony in England. Bax, Moeran, Vaughan Williams, Dyson and Lloyd are amongst the significant composers to produce memorable works in the genre during this decade. So too was a young composer named William Walton, whose previous successes with Belshazzar’s Feast and the Viola Concerto guaranteed public anticipation when word got out that he was working on a symphony. The music did not, however, come easily, and the composer had to overcome a number of writing blocks. It would take him four years to complete the work. In fact, his publisher became so frustrated with him that there were at least two performances of the work without its finale - all very well received - before the work was heard in its complete form in 1935. It was but a month later that the Decca Record Company gave the symphony its first recording.

The wait was worthwhile! Walton’s unique and what I like to call "Imperial" voice comes through in the remarkable use of dissonance over long sustained tones, giving a sense of harmonic unity. The music can at times be icy and striking, yet it is never threatening or oppressive. The scherzo is interesting in that it is marked to be played "with malice". The driving rhythms that are a hallmark of Walton’s music are present here in spades. The slow movement, with its achingly beautiful flute theme, almost looks back at the scherzo with some regret for its outburst. Marked Andante con malincolia, one commentator quipped that "Willy changed girlfriends between movements". Whether the angry scherzo followed by the mournful slow movement is a reflection of the composer’s personal life emotions must be left to speculation. The finale is signature Walton, jammed with the triumphant rhythms and open harmonies that bring the listener to a glorious mountain summit. The movement is over twelve minutes of sheer passionate exhilaration.

Of the several LSO Live releases that I have reviewed in recent weeks, this one is by far the finest. Sir Colin Davis brings out the best in this orchestra with disciplined taut playing, excitement and energy that never gets out of control, and finely thought out contrasts in mood and emotion. Thankfully, the producers have left off the unsettling applause that has marred other releases in the series. I firmly believe that there is a difference between the home and public listening experience, and that applause on recordings unduly jars the home listener out of his comfort zone. On another production note, I have to give mention to the program booklet as well. The notes for everything I have received from this series are well written, concise and to the point. Best yet, they are set in a very readable typeface and the page layouts are superb. Sound quality is warm, rich and present. Studio recordings of this work by André Previn and Andrew Litton are not to be discounted, but this is a superb reading of an early twentieth century masterpiece, and well worth owning, even as a duplicate.

The London Symphony have hit upon a potential goldmine by releasing recordings such as this. Let us hope the effort is prosperous enough for it to continue indefinitely.

Kevin Sutton

see overview of recordings of this symphony by Len Mullenger

 

 



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