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William WALTON (1902-1983)
Violin Concerto (1938-39) [32:40]
Symphony No. 1 in B flat minor (1932-35) [46:46]
Kurt Nikkanen (violin)
New Haven Symphony Orchestra/William Boughton
rec. Woolsey Hall, New Haven, Connecticut, USA, 14 May 2009 (symphony); 17 September 2009 (concerto). DDD
NIMBUS NI 6119 [79:28]

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The New Haven Connecticut Walton connection is what? New Haven and Yale are close by and Yale is the home of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library where the world's largest archive of Walton's original mss is to be found. Nimbus, the NHSO and the Beinecke Library will collaborate over the next four years in a recording programme informed by study of the original materials. I have to say though that I did not notice any differences. William Boughton, music director of the NHSO since 2007 and a Nimbus mainstay, reminds us that Elgar also had strong Yale connections.
 
A little of Walton's early Façade cleverness goes a long way with me though I would like to hear his lost overture Doctor Syntax. Give me the works of the 1930s and 1940s every time. This disc delivers on that preference. This is, I think, the first time we have found the sultry Violin Concerto and the epic Symphony sharing the same disc. Unlike the Wellesz choral disc issued by Nimbus in the same month this makes for a very generous CD timing pushing capacity to approaching 80 minutes.
 
Kurt Nikkanen was born in Hartford, Connecticut, began his violin studies at the age of three and at twelve made his Carnegie Hall debut, performing Saint-Saëns’ Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso with the New York Symphony. He has taken up head-on the cause of contemporary music performing Adams’ Violin Concerto (under the composer’s direction), Aaron Jay Kernis’s Concerto for Violin and Guitar, and H.K. Gruber’s Violin Concerto Nebelsteinmusik, also under the composer’s direction. He gave the world premiere of John Zorn’s Contes des Fées for violin and chamber orchestra. He has recorded Steven R. Gerber’s Violin Concerto (Koch International Classics 3-75091-2 H1), written especially for him and has just finished recording Gerber’s complete chamber music with Cho-Liang Lin, Sara Davis Buechner, Cyrus Beroukheim and Brinton Smith (Naxos 8.559618). He gave the world premiere recording of Mikko Heino's concerto with the Turku Philharmonic Orchestra and Petri Sakari.
 
His Nimbus outing for the Walton Violin Concerto is ideally transparent with plenty of thunder in its arteries to accommodate this most feline, amorous, seductive and romantic of music. It is in this work that my usual reservations about Heifetz are shed. For me his 1950s version for RCA-BMG has yet to be excelled. Nikkanen's quicksilver is not as mercurially fast and lacks the dedicatee’s luminous torque. He is however a delight – allowing for some moments of excessive vibrato in I - and is quite captivating in the second and final movements. This is no doubt helped by the recording which is in crisp focus. Nikkanen is superb in the showers of sparks and tiptoe attack of the middle movement though I was aware of some untidiness or lack of pin-sharp rhythmic focus in the intricacy of the first movement. Nikkanen and Boughton articulate the stabbing pains of the finale and the surreptitious alchemical transformation of this material into the explicit surging triumph of the last pages. At the end of the Concerto there’s some limpidly ‘sticky’ woodwind writing and utterly glorious spot-on brass writing with a breathtaking decay into silence. This version plays some four minutes longer than Heifetz (1951) and two minutes longer than Haendel so brace yourself.
 
The Concerto is a superb work and there is room for a world of great versions. These include Haendel/Berglund from the 1970s on EMI. Then there’s Chung and Previn on Decca; pity that was not included on the recent DG-Universal Previn Celebration box alongside Prokofiev 1. Other triumphs have included the rather overlooked Francescatti (Philadelphia/Ormandy) on Sony-CBS - a version which for years was travelling favourite in my car cassette player coupled with the Sibelius (40 60287). Would that Vilde Frang and the same team who made her version of the Sibelius and Prokofiev 1 also record the Walton perhaps with the Elgar or better still with the Karlowicz and the Ivanovs.
 
The Walton First Symphony receives its grand due from the NHSO, Boughton and Nimbus. Boughton takes the piece consistently slower than Previn, Walton, Rattle and Handley to no disfavour – in fact the work gains in epic stride and in tenderness in the Andante. The work’s outer chapters represent a massive cordillera of climactic material. The performers’ marcato emphasis and accentuation hammer home Walton's resinous and resonant triumphs and tragedies. Here Boughton is up against a phalanx of competition. Previn from the mid-1960s remains superb in capturing the corrosive malice of the Presto and the romantic milieu. Malevolence is not absent from the Nimbus but it is not as intense as with Previn in either of his two versions including the often overlooked RPO account on Telarc. Contentment smiles gently out from the pages of the Andante where the melancholy element is lightly applied; sheerly lovely. The shuddering sunrise finale with its echoes of Sibelius and Debussy's La Mer works brilliantly and the NHSO are satisfyingly spot-on in their response. Every pulse is nicely adumbrated, silhouetted and limned. Those ostinatos in the finale register as strongly Sibelian.
 
The good liner-notes are by Richard Freed. They include four pages from the scores. The photos of Boughton and Nikkanen are well chosen.
 
Very fine expansive readings in up to date sound.
 
Rob Barnett
 
 


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