William WALTON (1902-1983)
Symphony No. 1 in B flat minor (1933) [43:47]
Belshazzar’s Feast (1930-31) [34:55]
Dennis Noble (baritone)
London Philharmonic Choir
Philharmonic Promenade Orchestra (actually the London Philharmonic Orchestra)/Adrian Boult
rec. August 1956 (Symphony) and September 1953 (Belshazzar’s Feast), Walthamstow Assembly Hall, London
SOMM CD094 [78:24]

I was looking at the programme of the first performance of Belshazzar’s Feast at the Leeds Festival in 1931. What a line-up. Things started with VW’s Toward the Unknown Region, and then side-tracked bizarrely to Bach’s Double Violin Concerto, for which up stepped Britain’s two finest fiddle players of the time, Albert Sammons and Isolde Menges. Then we had Eric Fogg conducting the premiere of his The Seasons, and then the Walton with Dennis Noble, its future constant companion, and finally Rimsky’s Antar. Sargent presided.

Noble made his recording of Belshazzar with the composer in 1942. Its power and determinist authority have seldom, if perhaps ever, truly been matched though sonically it was soon to be overtaken. He was in his freshest voice then too, though it’s remarkable how fine the instrument remained, and in 1953 when he made this mono LP recording with Boult his impeccable diction and his fine range and splendid tonal reserves were still very much in evidence. He is a little forwardly balanced but that does no injustice really to the tenor of the performance. His oratorical strength is well nigh undimmed even after more than twenty years singing the role. Boult directs with great acuity. His orchestral forces are the LPO, masquerading as the Philharmonic Promenade Orchestra. The chorus is the choir of the same orchestra, and they prove a more ragged bunch; the first choral entry is certainly uneven, but they are certainly fervent.

The First Symphony was recorded in 1956. Both this and Belshazzar were recorded for Nixa. Boult offers a tautly argued, generally decently played account. The recording isn’t, to be honest, any great shakes even for this vintage, but it preserves a reading that has a good kick in the scherzo, taken at Boult’s usual tempo, a genuinely Waltonian one; this is the tempo at which the composer habitually took it, as his surviving recordings confirm. Performances of the slow movement are often quite wildly divergent. Its original exponent on disc, Hamilton Harty, took it at a perfectly gauged tempo - around nine and a half minutes. Walton was perhaps a touch broader. Of moderns Slatkin is very broad at nearly twelve minutes. Boult here takes 9:50, the tempo Walton took on his Australasian tour [Bridge 9133A/B]. But in December 1975, with the BBCSO, and live, Boult zipped through it in about seven minutes flat. That later performance puts this early mono into perspective. It is his only commercial recording of the symphony - as this is of Belshazzar also - so unless fleshed out by live performances possibly offers only a partial view of his way with it. Certainly he tightened the tempi in all four movements - the scherzo only a touch. It emerges as a more ferocious document there [BBC Classics 15656 91782] than in this commercial inscription. Nevertheless despite the ancillary drawbacks of less than stellar orchestral playing and recording, the powerful Boult grip is always evident, and admirable, but do try to hear the live BBC performance.

This performance has been out before, on the ‘Virtuoso Collection’ [PVCD8377] way back when. The new transfer sounds a touch blunter than the older one - transferred in that other case by Mike Dutton - and it’s still pretty good.

Jonathan Woolf

Despite less than stellar orchestral playing and recording, the powerful Boult grip is always evident, and admirable ... see Full Review