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Support us financially by purchasing this disc from
Sir William WALTON (1902-1083)
Symphony No 1 in B flat minor (1932-35) [43:10]
Violin Concerto in B minor (revised version, 1943)* [33:05]
Tasmin Little (violin)
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Edward Gardner
rec. 3-4 February 2014, Fairfield Halls, Croydon; *18 September 2013, Watford Colosseum. DSD
CHANDOS CHSA 5136 [76:30]

There are many fine British symphonies but, at the risk of courting controversy, I believe there are only six that can truly be called ‘great’: the two symphonies that Elgar completed; the middle three of Vaughan Williams’ nine; and Walton’s First. I’ve encountered several fine recorded versions of the work down the years but André Previn’s 1966 recording with the LSO, which I first bought as an LP well over forty years ago, has proved ominously and defiantly hard to shift from the top of the table (review). How will this latest challenger fare?
 
In the incandescent first movement Gardner sets a cracking pace from the outset. Writing of the Previn performance in 2002, I said that in his hands this movement ‘crackles with electricity from first to last’; that’s just as true of Gardner’s approach. Actually, he’s quicker at the start than Previn, who takes a slightly more deliberate but no less energetic view. Gardner brings out all the harmonic tension in the music - as does Previn - in a reading which never loses momentum, even when Gardner reins back the pace to capture the aching passion of the slower episodes. There’s explosive energy a-plenty and no lack of dynamism. The three minutes or so from 10:28 to the end are viscerally exciting as Gardner drives on to the conclusion of a draining reading of the movement. As at the beginning Previn is marginally more deliberate in these closing minutes but his relentless approach pays equal dividends. After either of these gripping performances one rally needs a breather but there’s no let up.
 
Gardner’s account of the Presto con malizia movement is urgent and tremendously precise. Here the BBCSO woodwinds are as agile as you could wish while the strings impel the music forward and there are some thrilling contributions from the horns. In this movement Walton takes the rhythmic ingenuity and urgency of Belshazzar’s Feast to a new level. The one slight disappointment I have is that Gardner’s excellent timpanist does not feature quite as prominently as I would have expected; the ferociously exciting part sounds a little bit muffled. Previn’s incisive timpanist, by contrast, is a malevolent, daemonic presence throughout. The last few bars of Gardner’s performance offer exceptional orchestral brilliance. Previn is brilliant too, here and elsewhere, but I do wonder if perhaps he conveys the con malizia element just a bit more successfully than does Gardner. Previn’s reading takes the breath away; Gardner comes close but I wonder if he conveys more brilliance than malice.
 
The haunting flute solo at the start of the third movement is beautifully done on this new recording; the aching melancholy is caught to perfection. As in the first movement, Gardner brings out the harmonic tensions in the music very well indeed and in the opening minutes of this movement the BBCSO woodwinds play with great feeling and finesse. Gardner is by no means cool but he shows great patience and restraint. This in itself produces compelling results but the real dividend comes from 7:57 onwards as he and the orchestra screw up the tension as the movement’s climax is built and then achieved. The comparative restraint shown earlier makes this climax resonate all the more powerfully – the horn parts in the middle of the orchestral texture register tellingly in these pages. Previn, it should be said, is no less successful in this movement.
 
After composing the first three movements Walton had something of a writer’s block and the finale was added to the symphony after the rest of it had been premiered. Some commentators have held that the finale is an anti-climax after what has preceded it and that it appears ‘bolted on’. I’ve never had such a problem with it, though it’s arguably somewhat more conventional in tone. By the time he wrote the finale Walton had ended one romantic relationship and had entered another and quite likely a lot of the angst that coloured the first three movements had dissipated. It’s almost as if in the finale he is saying ‘I had some problems, but I’m over them now.’ Is that too fanciful? Perhaps – or perhaps not. In his good booklet notes Anthony Burton compares the grand rhetorical opening to Walton’s later marches and film scores. I think that’s a well-made point but I’d go further and suggest that the spirit of Crown Imperial, Orb and Sceptre and, indeed, the ‘Spitfire’ Prelude and Fugue can be detected throughout the movement. The marking for the main allegro is qualified – or amplified – by the words brioso ed ardamente and that’s certainly what we hear from Gardner and the BBC SO. We also hear it from Previn and the LSO. The fugal episodes come over really well in this new recording, both the first such episode (from 2:48) and the quiet, scurrying fugue (from 7:21). The sound on the Previn recording, though nearly 50 years old – can that really be true? – is still pretty impressive. However, when the two sets of timpani and the tam-tam erupt in the Gardner recording (8:23) the modern-day sonics of the Chandos recording really do make a difference. Gardner manages the rhetorical ending extremely well, conveying the grandeur without tipping over into hyperbole.
 
I have no intention of discarding the Previn recording which is, as they used to say, ‘a classic of the gramophone’ but this new Gardner offers the strongest challenge to its hegemony in my experience. Anyone who regards the Walton First as highly as I do should – nay, must – have both.
 
Choosing this newcomer for your library is made even easier by the coupling. Tasmin Little has produced some exceptional recordings for Chandos of late. There’s her recording of the Elgar concerto, which has been widely and highly praised (review) and which I’m embarrassed to admit I haven’t yet heard. I have no such confession to make regarding her account of the Moeran concerto, which I rate very highly indeed (review). Now she’s tackled the Walton concerto.
 
The work was written for Jascha Heifetz and Anthony Burton points out that in composing it Walton had in mind not only the great violinist’s legendary virtuosity but also ‘the sweetness and purity of his playing of long lyrical lines.’ In the light of this comment it’s been instructive and fascinating to compare Heifetz’s 1950 recording of the concerto, conducted by the composer (review), with this newcomer. Astonishingly, Heifetz and the composer get through the piece in just 27:15, nearly six minutes less than Miss Little takes. Her account of the first movement, for example, is a full two minutes longer. The key, I think, is that while the Little/Gardner partnership can be as volatile and driven in the faster passages they’re much more ready to savour the slower sections than are Heifetz and Walton. In this connection the Chandos habit of including in their track-listings all the main tempo indications of individual movements is an enormous help. In Heifetz’s RCA booklet, for example, the tempo for the finale is given as Vivace. The Chandos literature confirms that this is merely the first of twelve tempo markings. Even if you don’t have access to a score that sort of information helps the listener to get a much closer feel for what’s going on.
 
At the start of the first movement Tasmin Little phrases the music tenderly, her line cushioned by Gardner’s sensuous accompaniment. Heifetz is swifter, more clear-eyed. I have to say that I’m won over by Miss Little’s reflective and romantic approach. Some idea of how things are shaping up can be gained by noticing that Little gets to the Subito molto passage (4:09) a full minute later than Heifetz. At this point Gardner gets the orchestra to erupt and when Little joins them a few moments later her playing is just as sparky. I like her approach to this movement very much; it combines thoughtfulness with virtuosity. The Tempo I (9:10) where the flute has the opening theme, counterbalanced by the violin, is absolutely magical and from this point to the end of the movement the music-making is absolutely superb. Heifetz and Walton bring out the brittle side of the music very well and Heifetz’s steely virtuosity is breath-taking but Little offers a more rounded and nuanced view of the movement; she certainly touches the heart strings more.
 
In the second movement Heifetz offers some highly impressive quicksilver playing. The main point of difference comes in the passages marked Con molto rubato where there’s much more ‘give’ in Little’s playing. I find her approach to these episodes seductive and, dare one say, sexy; ultimately it’s much more convincing. In the fast passages Little displays cat-like agility and the dynamic shading that she and Gardner bring to the music is very impressive – and more acute than the composer and his soloist achieve. In the finale it’s a similar story. Both soloists are excellent in the quick, bravura passages but Little has a definite edge when it comes to the ruminative and reflective episodes. The return of the material from the first movement (4:32) is gorgeous in the Chandos performance and Tasmin Little gives a super account of the Elgar-like accompanied cadenza, revisiting and summing up the main ideas of the concerto in expert fashion before she and Gardner despatch the coda with brilliance.
 
As with the Previn reading of the symphony one wouldn’t wish to discard the Heifetz recording; it’s an important document. However, to repeat a comment I made earlier, I think Tasmin Little offers a more rounded and nuanced view of the work and the support she gets from Gardner and the BBC SO is just marvellous.
 
This is a compelling coupling of exceptionally fine Walton performances. The Chandos recordings of both performances are superb – I listened in SACD format. Both these performances now become the modern benchmark for the respective works.
 
Though I’ve had a number of very good discs to review in the last few months, it’s been a little while since I added a disc to my shortlist for Recordings of the Year. This one emphatically goes on that list.

John Quinn

Previous review: Brian Wilson