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]
To complement the review by Rob Barnett I’m using a different recording for comparison in the Violin Concerto and concentrating on a single comparator for the Symphony.
Walton’s Violin Concerto begins Andante tranquillo (tr. 1). How do you define this? For violinist Kurt Nikkanen and conductor William Boughton it means an assured and expressive, sweet intensity of flowing melody. I compared the 1991 recording by Lydia Mordkovitch with the London Philharomonic Orchestra/Jan Latham-Koenig (Chandos CHAN 9073). Here are the timings
Timings I II III Total Nikkanen/Boughton 11:49 7:09 13:42 32:40 Mordkovitch/Latham-Koenig 12:56 6:52 14:27 34:15
This shows Nikkanen/Boughton isn’t the most measured of recordings! Mordkovitch and Latham-Koenig emphasise the tranquillity, but in doing so the expression is paradoxically more uneasy, intently studied, comparatively static and frozen. Presenting the second theme (2:23), Nikkanen and Boughton show more swing and assurance, the violin first lively but in effective contrast becoming softly rhapsodic. Latham-Koenig’s second theme is firm but again rather static, requiring Mordkovitch to inject energy. Boughton achieves Walton’s intended sudden splash at the beginning of the development (3:50) more successfully than Latham-Koenig. This is where all becomes more animated and Nikkanen more energetic and later more agitated, as marked. He provides a more gripping and contrasted cadenza than the more impersonal Mordkovitch. To the recapitulation (8:58) Boughton brings fresher, more focused woodwind solos than Latham-Koenig while Nikkanen offers intense but also steely melody, more involved and involving than Mordkovitch’s objectivity.
Boughton opens the second movement scherzo (tr. 2) freshly but it’s Nikkanen who introduces its playfulness. Its gypsy-flavoured second theme (1:20) Nikkanen savours quietly yet with plenty of charm while to the return of the earlier material he brings an attractive nervous energy which the orchestra feeds off. Mordkovitch gives the second theme a more characterful coyness but come the Trio (2:35) Boughton provides more flow, a warmer horn melody. If Nikkanen’s presentation of it is arguably at first a touch understated, his recall of the Trio theme after the return of the scherzo is magical.
Boughton treats the march which opens the finale (tr. 3) lightly, festively, if without quite the eagerness Latham-Koenig finds. You may be forgiven, however, for thinking this is just a foil for the lovely broadening out to the pastoral second theme (1:03) to which Nikkanen brings an attractive lyrical flow with the feel of grateful recollection. Mordkovitch is also at her best here with rather more airy freedom, strength of purpose and variation of dynamic. When the second theme returns on the violin (4:40) it’s joined by a transformed, tamed version of the march theme on the orchestra. Boughton revels here in a luscious texture and sense of lyrical expansion, albeit Latham-Koenig’s pointing of the union of themes is crisper. A memorable moment in this finale is the surprise return of the first theme of the first movement (8:00), luxuriantly presented by Nikkanen with the finale’s tamed march theme as an orchestral backcloth. Mordkovitch makes this reappearance from the first movement shine, with slightly more edge and similarly makes its final appearance more passionate where Nikkanen (11:22) is suitably ethereal and concentrated. Boughton reserves his eagerness in this movement for its coda.
In the First Symphony’s opening movement (tr. 4) Boughton conjures a tellingly soft opening from which the first theme emerges melodiously on the oboe. He creates a fine sense of organic growth as the forces gather. The jagged accompanying figures in the strings radiate a simmering energy and the theme becomes more fraught in the massed woodwind. The second theme (1:58), in low tessitura on the first violins, is cleanly projected and becomes more resolute as the agitation increases. Boughton makes clear the activity and thereby density of the texture as the themes interlock – something they continue do throughout the movement. The third theme (2:51), introduced by violas and cellos is a more angular and expressive cousin to the second. It is presented rather objectively. The climactic statement of the first theme by full orchestra is more emphatic than spontaneous. The middle section (5:49) sees a bassoon solo with solo viola backcloth of a suddenly different, more human and individual mood. This is vividly conveyed by Boughton. The strings’ tempo fluctuations shortly thereafter are I feel somewhat over-pointed, perhaps owing to a relatively slow basic pulse. The woodwind musings above the strings’ line are poetically delineated as are the following desolate woodwind solos. Clarity is achieved at the expense of forward sweep. The great concluding procession beginning on the heavy brass (11:45) has a purposeful stride but the horns’ trills are carefully placed. This is controlled power. The coda (14:26) is celebratory and the timpani appear to come forward in the texture from 15:02, rightly and properly as here they’re marked fff against everyone else’s ff, the final low F for one beat (15:07) the only sound in the orchestra.
I compared the 1988 recording by the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/Vernon Handley (EMI 5 86596 2). Here are the comparative timings
Timings I II III IV Total Boughton 15:28 6:27 11:26 13:25 46:46 Handley 13:41 5:59 10:30 12:25 42:35
Handley’s greater pace results in a more eager opening, a firmer second theme, a more tense third theme and a first climax that is taut as well as emphatic. His softening thereafter is sweeter but less ethereal and poised than Boughton’s but Handley’s cellos’ repeat of the bassoon theme is more anguished. The shape of the string writing thereafter is clearer, a distracted lament before it becomes more purposeful and then angry. At the start of the closing procession the horns’ trills snarl and there’s a more immediate sense of the wielding of power. The final accented two beats, firmly presented by Boughton, are spat out by Handley.
The second movement scherzo (tr. 5) has from Boughton all the playfulness a scherzo should have. It’s also marked ‘with malice’ and this is less easy to grasp other than in its unpredictability and continual teasing: passages of calm are introduced only to be bludgeoned out of the way. The first theme (0:11) has from Boughton a furtive restlessness. The second (0:52) is a quiet flow including some silence, the ultimate quiet. The third theme (1:06) is more aggressive and dismissive, the fourth (2:37) wilder. There’s plenty to disturb: the spasmodic crescendi and decrescendi of the violins from 1:48, stopped horns at 4:34, extreme contrasts of dynamic and cumulative effect of manic repetition. Again Boughton’s control is arguably too evident. His malice is not that which appears to create mayhem. Handley’s faster tempo serves him better in this respect. His scherzo has a more hurtling progress. It might just go off the rails, with the fourth theme serving as an abandoned dance.
The slow movement (tr. 6), and being Andante not really that slow, is marked ‘with melancholy’. Boughton makes it a slow, Adagietto - sultry impressionist languor. If this is melancholy, Debussy’s faun must have it and comes readily to mind because of the first theme flute solo and gorgeous playing Boughton gets. The second theme on clarinet (1:27) is more aching and intense, the third, also on clarinet (2:40) even more so and more beautiful as well. The sighing violins here are just one aspect of accompaniment with many interspersed solos that make this a whole landscape of both collective and individual sorrow. When the violins remove their mutes at 3:54 the atmosphere becomes grimmer. The intensity gathers until the fff marking on the strings at 9:04 signals emotion. This is finally given full rein for a brief, blazing spell. In this movement Boughton makes his best case for a slower tempo in that the music deserves this impassioned concentration. In comparison Handley seems too fast, even though he points the key features equally well.
Boughton’s finale (tr. 7) has an emphatically affirmative opening, albeit not as sunnily majestic as Handley’s. Boughton’s more relaxed, lightly articulated first fugue (3:00) is a success, though so is Handley’s fizz and edge. Boughton makes more telling the episode introduced by the oboe (4:16), an appreciation of the quieter aspects of life. The second fugue (7:07) he treats more firmly where Handley is more expansive. Boughton clearly and patiently builds the closing jamboree, his slower tempo not realizing Handley’s effervescence but bringing us more pointedly to the contemplation of an individual soul in the distanced trumpet solo (10:57).
What strikes me most about these performances, which are well worth hearing, is their thoughtful approach; they impress me most in their quieter moments. They’re well served by a recording which is rounded and dense. I personally find Boughton’s consistently slow tempi in the Symphony less attractive than did Rob Barnett. Walton himself didn’t favour them. In his book Sixteen Symphonies Bernard Shore quotes Walton on the first movement, “it’s too emotional as it is, and it gets unbearable if that side of the picture is drawn out. It must go on!” His 1959 Edinburgh Festival concert performance times at 13:01, his 1951 studio recording 13:51 against Boughton’s 15:28, but Haitink’s 1981 recording takes 16:18. All that said, I agree with Rob Barnett about the effectiveness of Boughton’s slow movement.
Well worth hearing for their thoughtful approach … see Full Review
see also review by Rob Barnett