William WALTON (1902-1983)
Symphony No.1 in B flat minor (1935) [42:41]
Belshazzar’s Feast (1931) [36:11]
Violin Concerto (1939) [31:42]
Viola Concerto (1929) [25:44]
Partita for Orchestra (1957) [15:51]
Donald Bell (baritone); Philharmonia Chorus; Yehudi Menuhin (violin/viola); Philharmonia Orchestra; New Philharmonia Orchestra; London Symphony Orchestra/Sir William Walton
rec. Kingsway Hall, London, October 1951 (Symphony), February 1959 (Belshazzar, Partita); Abbey Road Studios, London, October 1968 (Viola Concerto), July 1969 (Violin Concerto)
EMI CLASSICS 9 68944 2 [78:52 + 73:41]
These two discs were issued separately in 2000, though I don’t know if they have been continuously available since then. They reappear now, complete with a typically elegant and informative booklet essay from Michael Kennedy. Any Walton enthusiast who does not already possess them should snap them up without delay.
The earliest performance is that of the First Symphony, set down in 1951 with Walter Legge as producer. What a work it is! Walton reportedly had trouble finding a way of ending it, and the first performance was given without the finale. In spite of its somewhat episodic structure, and even a bit of note-spinning, I have never subscribed to the view that the finale is an anti-climax. The slow, triple-time opening is wonderfully majestic, and the close, with its cruelly taxing trumpet solo, is as impressive a symphonic peroration as one will hear anywhere. The third, slow movement is marked to be played “with melancholy”, and the second movement scherzo “with malice”! This is all wonderful music, but the first movement is the most impressive of all. A quarter hour of constant development of two short motifs, it seems to have been conceived in, as it were, a single breath. The tension never lets up and the orchestral writing is masterly. There have been a number of impressive recorded performances of this masterpiece over the years. Previn’s reading is a classic of the gramophone, but that by Paul Daniels with the English Northern Philharmonia, recorded by Naxos in 1994 is also very fine, and I’m an admirer of Slatkin’s 1987 London Philharmonic Orchestra performance from Virgin. The composer’s own performance, though, is in a class of its own. There are some moments of rough orchestral playing, some shaky ensemble, and I don’t think it could be claimed that the Philharmonia was making a very beautiful sound on this occasion. But I don’t think the composer was aiming for that. On the contrary, it was the white heat of the moment which interested him, I think, and the result is a performance where the tension is controlled as in no other, not even in Previn’s, with its touch of luxury casting, the sensational London Symphony Orchestra throwing off the work with just a little bit too much easy virtuosity.
The situation with Belshazzar’s Feast is similar. Previn recorded it twice, the more successful version of the two on EMI with London Symphony Orchestra forces in 1972. It is a superb reading which brings out the harsh pagan atmosphere, but even more, the incongruous yet strangely convincing jazziness of much of the music. The composer, who admired Previn, was critical of many of the tempi in this performance. There are a few moments of faulty tuning from the chorus, and in any case they cannot compare to the absolutely stunning Wilhelm Pitz-trained Philharmonia Chorus from the late nineteen-fifties. Everything is where it should be: power, tuning, diction, the group cannot be faulted. Well, hardly: there are moments, notably in the opening unaccompanied passage for the men, where slight imprecision of attack is perceptible, but this is probably due to Walton’s technical inadequacy as a conductor. He only conducted his own music, and was supremely able to rouse the forces at his disposal. This performance is electrifying and hasn’t been matched since. I find Donald Bell just right in the solo part, and he is realistically placed at the front of the ensemble. The orchestra plays with astonishing virtuosity and the mono recording, apart from one or two inconsistencies of balance, and despite its age, is fine.
The Partita was recorded and released alongside Belshazzar’s Feast - nostalgia-philes will be happy to know that the original LP cover is reproduced on the back of the booklet - and at the time of the recording was very much a recent work, composed, so the composer said, to be “enjoyed straight off”. Two lively movements enclose a central siciliana, and one wonders what Georg Szell, a fine Walton interpreter, but not one known for high jinx, made of it. The composer enjoyed a bit of high jinx, very much in evidence in this exuberant performance.
The curious mixture of Italianate warmth and profound melancholy are perhaps closer to what William Walton was really like as a person. The two performances from Menuhin are less indispensable than the rest of this collection, but should not be missed even so. The soloist is at once magnetic and technically fallible. His tone is curiously fragile, with a characteristic, very fast, vibrato. There are quite a few moments of faulty intonation, and the playing is effortful in places, most notably in the scherzo of the Violin Concerto. Nor can it be said that there is much variety of tone, Menuhin seemingly unwilling to play quietly for very long. This problem is exacerbated by the recording balance which has him well forward in both concertos - despite two different recording teams - a fault I hadn’t remembered from earlier hearings, and which is particularly damaging in passages such as the coda of the Violin Concerto’s finale, where the delicious writing for the piccolo is all but covered by the soloist’s figuration. Even the composer seems less engaged with his own music than in the earlier recordings, integrating less well than other interpreters the long tutti passage in the finale of the Viola Concerto, for example. Yet in spite of all this, these performances are compelling ones. At a tempo much slower than that indicated in the score, the closing pages of the Viola Concerto are very affecting, and Menuhin is movingly ardent in the opening melody of the Violin Concerto. Collectors will want these versions in any event, if only for historic reasons, and will gain much pleasure from them. But there are other readings to be preferred as single choices. Lawrence Power’s superb recent performance of the original version on Hyperion provides collectors with the opportunity to decide if Walton was right to reduce the orchestration when he revised his Viola Concerto. That performance is coupled with music by Rubbra, but if you prefer more Walton, Lars Anders Tomter on Naxos is very impressive indeed. Another fine Naxos disc presents Dong-Suk Kang in the Violin Concerto, conducted, as is the Tomter performance, by Paul Daniel. But the performance of the Violin Concerto to seek out is that by Kyung-Wha Chung with Previn on Decca, a magnificent achievement by all concerned. Listen to the opening to gauge the difference between her approach and that of Menuhin. The composer was very impressed by her, as he wrote to Malcolm Arnold in 1972: “What a girl! She has to be heard to be believed. In addition she’s very easy on the eye.”