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Sir William WALTON (1902-1983)
Symphony No.1 in b-flat minor (1932-35) [43:10]
Violin Concerto (revised 1943) [33:05]
Tasmin Little (violin)
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Edward Gardner
rec. Watford Colosseum, 18 September 2013 (Violin Concerto); Fairfield Halls, Croydon, 3-4 February 2014 (Symphony No. 1)
CHANDOS SACD CHSA5136 [76:30]

Reviewed as CHAN5136 (mp3, 16- and 24-bit stereo and Studio Surround download) from theclassicalshop.net, in which form it is available from early April 2014. To be released on CD on 28 April, 2014.

Chandos have recently brought us several recordings featuring Tasmin Little and Edward Gardner, separately and together. These strongly challenge existing recommendations.

In the case of the two works here my benchmarks are:

RCA 74321925752: Symphony No.1; Violin Concerto – LSO/André Previn; Jascha Heifetz (violin); Philharmonia Orchestra/William Walton (with Cello Concerto, Viola Concerto and Sinfonia Concertante) – rec. 1966 stereo and 1950 mono. A super-budget 2-CD set available for around £7.50. See review and review.

This remains the best recording of the First Symphony to date and the Violin Concerto is conducted by its dedicatee. It’s in sound which, though mono, is so unbelievably transformed from the LP on which I used to have it that I can hardly believe that it dates from 1950.

Naxos Historical Archives 9.80168: Symphony No.1 – Philharmonia Orchestra/William Walton – from HMV ALP1027, rec. 1953 mono. Available to download only – £1.99 from classicsonline.com. Not available in the USA and several other countries. The transfer is less miraculous than RCA have achieved with the Violin Concerto but still very good for its age and the performance one of the most vivid available – see review of earlier EMI reissue with Belshazzar’s Feast (now deleted).

The later (1959) BBC Legends recording is no longer available, but Walton conducts Walton (live from his 1964 New Zealand tour) offers the Violin Concerto (with Berl Senofsky), Partita, Symphony No.1 and excerpts from Henry V: Bridge BCD9133, 2 CDs – see review – download from classicsonline.com or stream from Naxos Music Library.

Somm Céleste SOMM094: Symphony No.1 – LPO/Sir Adrian Boult (rec. Nixa, 1953 mono, with Belshazzar’s Feast). Of similar vintage to Walton’s own recording but sounding better on LP and an even better transfer than Naxos have achieved. Not having heard this before, I listened to the download (mp3 or lossless sound) from theclassicalshop.net and found myself rating the performance on a par with Walton’s own and Previn’s.

EMI Classics 6805012: Symphony No.1; Violin Concerto – NPO/Sir Malcolm Sargent; Nigel Kennedy (violin); RPO/André Previn (with Symphony No.2, Viola Concerto, Façade Suites and Belshazzar’s Feast). A 5-CD budget set for around £20. NB not all dealers seem to stock this, so supplies may be running short. The single CD of the Violin and Viola Concertos is deleted and the 2-CD 20th-Century Classics set of the Symphonies (Sir Charles Mackerras), Violin and Cello Concertos (Nigel Kennedy and Paul Tortelier) and Wise Virgins (Louis Frémaux) seems not to be universally available: amazon.co.uk have it for £10.13 (stocks running low) or download from 7digital.com for £7.99.

Hyperion CDA67794: Symphony No.1 – BBC Scottish SO/Martyn Brabbins (with Siesta; Symphony No.2) – review and DL Roundup July 2011/2.

Naxos 8.553180: Symphony No.1 (with Partita) Rather short measure but good value at budget price – DL Roundup October 2008

Naxos 8.554325: Violin Concerto – Dong-Suk Kang (violin); ENPO/Paul Daniel (with Cello Concerto). A strongly competitive budget-price version – review and rev iew and DL Roundup October 2008

Nimbus NI6119: Symphony No.1 and Violin Concerto – Kurt Nikkanen (violin); New Haven SO/William Boughton – review and DL Roundup October 2010

That’s pretty powerful competition for the new recording, especially in the Symphony. Let’s start, then, with its unique selling point: this is the only version available in surround sound (SACD or 24/96 download) or even in 24/96 stereo, and it’s all that you would expect in that regard, so audiophiles will choose it for that alone. Many years ago a friend, working on Saturdays in a record shop to eke out his student grant – we still had record shops and grants then – served a customer who ordered the latest recording of Strauss’s Alpine Symphony. Asked if he particularly liked the music or the performers, the customer replied that he knew nothing of either; he was buying the LP simply because it had been recommended in a hi-fi magazine for the quality of the sound.

Fortunately, there was much more to that LP than the customer imagined – I think it was the RPO and Rudolf Kempe on RCA – and there’s much more to the new Chandos release than simply top-flight sound. Heard in 24/96 stereo this is, as you would expect, even more impressive than RCA’s revamp of Previn, very good as that is for its age. The surround- sound SACD should, I imagine, be impressive, too, when it’s released.

Everything hinges on the first movement in the symphony: it has to make a statement of power and it has to do so with comparatively modest forces, as Anthony Burton notes in the booklet. If Gardner falls very slightly short of Previn in particular, it’s only by a very small margin.

The scherzo has to live up to the adjective which Walton attaches to it, malizioso, malicious; to quote Anthony Burton again, it requires a biting intensity which Gardner achieves with a tempo very close to Walton’s own and Previn’s. There are two clusters here: the three mentioned at around 5:50 while Boughton, Boult and Daniel are slightly slower at around 6:30. The languid malinconia or melancholy of the third movement inspires a wide range of tempi, from Boult at 9:50 to Boughton at 11:26, with Gardner splitting the difference at 10:56, a compromise which works well, especially as it allows the movement to build to an effective climax.

Walton’s admirers had to wait three years for the completion of the finale and the first complete performance under Hamilton Harty who had conducted the first three movements in 1932. Walton had changed the object of his affections from its original dedicatee – something rather habitual for him – and that seemed to provide the impetus for a powerful completion. Walton and Previn adopt very fast tempi here – 11:50 and 12:12 respectively – with Boughton, Boult and Daniel rather slower at around 13:15. Once again Gardner leans toward the faster tempi, at 12:29 – very close to Brabbins, too, at 12:34 – bringing the symphony to an end not with a whimper but a bang and, all in all, concluding a recording worthy to stand with the very best.

I’d be surprised if Little and Gardner had not studied the recording made by dedicatee and composer – an authoritative but not necessarily compulsory model – but they take all three movements significantly more slowly than those illustrious predecessors. Walton’s later on-tour version on Bridge, Kang (Naxos) and Kennedy (EMI) are all faster than the new recording, too. I’m not going to make detailed comparisons, however, because everything on the new Chandos recording sounds just as ‘right’ as on RCA. There are two ways to describe performances that come out on paper looking slower than the opposition: there are those that drag and those that give the music a little more time to breathe. This belongs to the latter type.

Chandos had earlier recordings of the First Symphony (budget price CHAN6570, SNO/Sir Alexander Gibson, with Elgar Cockaigne Overture or 2-for-1 CHAN241-10, with the Cello Concerto) and the Violin Concerto (CHAN9073, Lydia Mordkovich, LPO/Jan Latham-Koenig, with the Violin Sonata arranged for orchestra) but, good as they both are, they are outshone by the new recording.

The ideal coupling for the Violin Concerto is the less well-known Viola Concerto, a pairing once available on LP from Yehudi Menuhin and on CD from Nigel Kennedy. The new Chandos coupling means that you have to look elsewhere for the Viola Concerto, but you needn’t look too far – no further, in fact, than Hyperion’s coupling of the Rubbra and Walton Viola Concertos (CDA67587: Lawrence Power; BBCScSO/Ilan Volkov). That’s every bit as fine as Dominy Clements – Recording of the Month: review – and Nicholas Scott – review – reported.

The availability of that Hyperion recording clears the way for me to recommend the new Chandos album wholeheartedly. I shall still be listening to the other recordings that I have listed – the RCA twofer most often of all, since it also offers the Cello Concerto performed by its dedicatee in sound immeasurably better than on LP – but of all Tasmin Little’s and Edward Gardner’s recent fine recordings this has impressed me the most. With excellent recording and a fine booklet of notes, at least try this out from Naxos Music Library when it’s available and I think you’ll want to buy it when you have heard it.

Brian Wilson







Experience Classicsonline