The catalogue is not short of recordings of Walton’s First Symphony.
Among the market leaders that spring immediately to mind are
Previn’s 1966 account, still in many ways unsurpassed (review),
and Rattle’s 1990 version (review),
which I also rate highly. There’s also an important live recording
under the composer himself (review),
though I fear this may no longer be available. Recordings of
the Second Symphony have been less frequent but anyone who has
a copy of George Szell’s taut 1961 reading with the Cleveland
Orchestra will not want to be parted from it (review)
Recordings that couple the two symphonies are rare – I’m unsure
if there have been any, come to think of it, though our eagle-eyed
readers will surely correct me if that’s not the case. So this
new Hyperion issue would be welcome if only for that reason
– but it deserves the warmest welcome, anyway, simply because
it’s a high quality CD.
As well as fine performances the issue benefits from a characteristically
well-informed and cogent note from Michael Kennedy. Mr Kennedy
is particularly interesting in relating succinctly the prolonged
– and sometimes tortuous - gestation of both symphonies. He
also makes a strong case that the Second Symphony has been under-rated
– and then you put on the disc and Martyn Brabbins and his players
make the case again, equally eloquently. I have the impression
that Brabbins is a touch more expansive than George Szell was
in his recording – Szell took 26:57 against Brabbins’ 28:27
– but I enjoyed the Brabbins performance greatly. Indeed, I
like the warmth as well as the razor-sharpness of his interpretation.
Michael Kennedy points out that the scoring of the Second Symphony
is “far more refined than in the first [symphony], mellower
and more exotic”. Having the two pieces cheek by jowl on the
same disc and done by the same performers emphasises the point.
To be sure, in the first movement there are lots of Walton trademarks
– the jagged, irregular rhythms and his characteristic harmonic
vocabulary. But this is a more concise work than the First and
it’s more transparently scored. I appreciated the alert and
agile playing of the BBCSSO in the first movement; they really
bring Walton’s music to life.
Mr Kennedy is right to suggest that the second movement has
a kinship with the sound-world of Troilus and Cressida.
It’s fastidiously written and scored and, in a memorable reading,
Martyn Brabbins achieves just the right balance between the
romantic feeling and the astringency in Walton’s writing. One
small passage that caught my ear, and which demonstrates Brabbins’
attention to detail, is the warm horn solo at 5:45, which is
so delicately accompanied. Later (at 7:27) the big climax is
suitably red-blooded. The finale is a brilliant and colourful
set of variations, mostly in a quick tempo though there are
a couple of typical Walton excursions in a slower, more lyrical
vein along the way. The playing in this movement is very incisive
and the jazzy fugal episode (from 5:23) is tossed off with no
little panache. All in all, this performance of the Second Symphony
is not only a success but also one that confirms the true stature
of the work.
Mind you, it’s perhaps unsurprising that the Second should have
suffered, however unfairly, in comparison with the First for
that is one of the finest of twentieth-century British symphonies.
And how I agree with Michael Kennedy that the finale, over which
Walton fretted for so long, is far from an ‘add on’. In my review
of the Previn recording a few years ago I commented “We now
know that Walton’s inability to complete his symphony had much
to do with his then-turbulent love life. The markedly different
mood of the finale which he eventually composed surely reflects
the fact that by 1935 Walton had moved on emotionally. He had
formed a new romantic attachment by this time and was much happier.
Perhaps the finale was his way of saying: ‘I had some problems,
but I’m over them now.’ In such a context it is perhaps easier
to relate the finale to the preceding music and to accept it
as a successful conclusion to the work.” The best performances
of this symphony – and this new Brabbins reading is definitely
in that category – leave one in no doubt that the four movements
form a coherent whole.
From the very start there’s grip and momentum in I; Brabbins
ensures the rhythms have powerful impetus. The climaxes have
the requisite power but Brabbins also knows when to ease off
- for example in the passage between 4:59 and 5:47 that ends
with the haunting, high bassoon solo. I was greatly impressed
with the cumulative power of the section from about 10:15, starting
with the canon in the low brass, to the end of the movement.
This has great drive and physical excitement and produces a
thrilling end to this most extraordinary movement.
The scherzo has bite and precision – the BBCSSO’s timpanist
excels. Praise too for the members of the horn section, who
also make their presence felt. The performance is as propulsive
and explosive as it should be.
Until I read Michael Kennedy’s note I didn’t know – or I may
have forgotten, since it’s some years since I read his Portrait
of Walton (1989) – that the solo flute melody, heard at
the start of III, was originally intended, in an allegro
version, to be the first subject of the first movement of
the symphony. That’s almost impossible to imagine as one hears
the chill, desolate flute solo here, evoking cold expanses –
this is one of many stretches in the work that bring Sibelius
to mind. Martyn Brabbins judges the movement beautifully, I
think. All of Walton’s melancholy is there but the reading is
never overwrought. The build-up to the main climax (from about
8:00 to 9:42) is mightily impressive – and note how the horns
register tellingly within the texture (9:26 - 9:42). Then, all
passion spent, the flute melody returns and the music sinks
to a close.
The finale opens grandly and then Brabbins brings out all the
urgency and dash in the main allegro. The spiky fugal
writing bristles and crackles at the start (2:50) and the tension
is expertly sustained thereafter. After all the tumult and energy
the haunting trumpet solo (10:04 - 10:34) sounds a nostalgic
air; did Walton at this point recall the plaintive sound of
a principal cornet in one of the brass bands that he must have
heard during his Oldham childhood? The final peroration is magnificent,
crowning one of the finest recordings of this symphony I’ve
To complete the disc we hear the short orchestral piece Siesta.
I think that this is no mere ‘filler’, however. The choice and
its placing on the CD seems to me to be quite cunning. Though
it predates the First Symphony by several years it acts as an
interesting and effective bridge between the two symphonies,
should one wish to play the disc right the way through, because,
coming after the drama and rigours of the First Symphony it
prepares the ear, so to speak, for the lighter and mellower
textures of the Second Symphony. It’s a warm and delicate piece
and the present performance is a winning one.
This is a splendid disc. Martyn Brabbins is a wholly convincing
interpreter of Walton’s music and the BBC Scottish players respond
to his direction with skill and commitment. Engineer Simon Eadon
and producer Andrew Keener have preserved the performances in
excellent sound and, as I’ve indicated earlier, Michael Kennedy’s
notes are first rate – as you’d expect. The performance of either
symphony in isolation would rank as a considerable achievement.
Paired in this way they constitute an unmissable opportunity.
And a review from Rob Barnett
I am not going to dissent from John Quinn’s findings and conclusions; quite the contrary. This is a completely splendid and generously logical coupling. The music has been given a potent recording yet with plenty of leg-room for the finer and more subtle episodes.
I listened to the disc in the car over the weekend during a motorway journey. All I should say is that you have to be careful about playing this First Symphony while you are driving. There’s an exuberant and exultant radiance about this music-making – especially the first and last movements of the First Symphony. In my case it had its effect on the accelerator pedal – or to be more exact on my foot on that pedal.
Much the same pulse-quickening qualities apply to the Second though it still feels more of an orchestral fantasy-display than a compelling symphonic statement. It would not have raised eye-brows if it had been called Concerto for Orchestra. For this agèd fogey the most pleasing version is that from André Previn and the LSO on prime analogue EMI. For years that version existed on LP and then CD coupled with another equally difficult to pigeonhole work, Constant Lambert’s Rio Grande in its first stereo outing. Previn, recorded in 1966, for me, leads the way in the First Symphony on RCA-BMG-Sony. The Telarc Previn with the RPO is also outstanding.
There is fact one identical coupling and I mean identical: it even includes the ineffably relaxed and relaxing Siesta. Made in 1989 in digital by the late Sir Charles Mackerras, it differs in that one orchestra, the London Philharmonic, plays the First, and another, the London Symphony, the Second. I do not recall hearing the disc but it has had a promisingly long shelf-life. It’s discography includes starting life on EMI mid-price as EMI Eminence 64766 or EMI EMX 2151. Then it reappeared in 2002 as Classics For Pleasure 75569. Very recently it has been reissued as the heart of a twofer in EMI Classics’ 20th Century Classics series 0947082 coupled with the Nigel Kennedy/André Previn Violin Concerto and the Paul Tortelier/Paavo Berglund Cello Concerto.
Back to the Hyperion. This disc is a typically class act. If you chose this disc to represent the Walton symphonies in your collection you would find in it a lifetime of reward and a fidelity to Walton’s 1930s passionate self as well as his more considered later maturity.