Sir William WALTON (1902-1983)
Symphony No. 1 in B flat minor (1932-35)* [44:15]
Siesta (1926) [5:21]
Symphony No. 2 (1956-60) [28:27]
BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra/Martyn Brabbins
rec. 20-21 November 2010; *4-5 December 2010, City Halls, Candleriggs, Glasgow. DDD
HYPERION CDA67794 [78:05]
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 heard.
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.
A splendid disc, pairing Walton’s two symphonies in excellent performances
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.
A typically class act.