There are twenty-five long years, with a World War intervening, between the two Walton symphonies. No.1 was premiered, in its final complete version, by Hamilton Harty in 1935; no.2 was first given at the Edinburgh Festival by John Pritchard and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic in 1960. They are very different; the first is a powerful, angry work in four movements; the second is a nervous, compact piece in just three movements. No.1 has always been well represented on disc, while until relatively recently, no.2 had few recordings in the catalogue.
However, that situation has now greatly improved, and there are numerous excellent versions of no.2, though the fact is that every single one has to cope with inevitable comparisons with the stunning first recording, by George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra
, made in the year of the première in this country and the US. It was quite remarkable how Szell, a conductor steeped in, and famous for, the core Classical Austro-German repertoire contrived to produce such a brilliant and idiomatic performance. It helped that he had an orchestra which, under his supervision, was quickly ascending to its position as one of the greatest in the world.
So how does this recording by the New Haven Symphony Orchestra (based in Connecticut) fare when compared to its great predecessor? Well, a bit of a mixed picture; this is a decent orchestra, led by a conductor who knows his stuff where English music is concerned. The first movement of the symphony is convincingly done; William Boughton and his players convey the twitchy, haunted nature of the opening music, and details are projected and captured well. However the central climax is underpowered; those horn glissandos are a vital part of the texture - and they’re weak.
The lovely slow movement, with its alternation of warm Romanticism and moments of fearfulness is well done, but without a sense of intense involvement. The playing is good, sensitive – but that’s about as far as it goes. There are also balance problems; the principal melody line in first horn at around track 2, 2:47 is virtually inaudible against the clarinets and bassoons, and the all-important vibraphone part simply doesn’t register. There is some fine solo woodwind playing, and the climaxes are resplendent; but the wonderful ending, where a dense dissonance evaporates to leave a final pianissimo B flat chord in the strings is ruined, partly by poor recording balance, and partly by audience noise. It sounds as if people are turning the pages of their programmes in preparation for the next movement – a damning comment on the performance if ever there was one. If an audience member honestly finds the programme notes more interesting than the symphony, then there really are problems, I do worry about concert programmes, and I wonder if MusicWeb International readers feel the same? The other night, I was at a performance of ‘The Dream of Gerontius’, and, during the Angel’s Farewell, my attention was caught by someone in the row in front browsing the adverts, largely for local estate agents and fast-food outlets. I have to say, I was momentarily distracted. I know programmes can be a source of valuable income, and not only for the nefarious characters who write the notes. However is there a discussion to be had, I wonder, about whether they are truly a positive element in our concert-giving? Rant over.
The finale begins with a will; Walton’s 12-note theme – a ‘counterblast’ if ever there was one – is given out powerfully, and the succeeding variations have plenty of the necessary characterisation. That said, the speed for the wonderful fugue that takes off around 5:07 (track 3) is what one might describe as ‘tempo di school orchestra’ – far too slow and tentative, as if Boughton doesn’t trust his players to stay together in what is, admittedly, a notoriously perilous passage. Even when the tempo should pick up further, at 7:38, the music remains stolidly earth-bound, the only solution being a hectic rush for the finishing-line, which distorts the culminating structure of the movement.
The Viola Concerto of 1929 is, unlike Symphony no.2, an undisputed masterpiece, and the first work in which Walton truly ‘announced himself’ on the international scene. Up until this point, he’d been seen as something of an ‘enfant terrible’, with works such as Façade
and Portsmouth Point.
Here was a work of real emotional commitment and power, superbly written for a comparatively neglected solo instrument.
On this CD, the concerto is undoubtedly the most successful item. The American violist Roberto Díaz — whose ‘day-job’ is Director of the prestigious Curtis Institute — gives a brilliant and deeply felt reading of the taxing solo part. If the recording places him a little bit far forward for some tastes, this has the great advantage of letting us hear all the detail of the solo part. The engineers have still managed to capture everything that’s going on in the orchestra too, so this is a real contender in a not very large field. I am a great admirer of Paul Neubauer’s reading with Andrew Litton and the Bournemouth SO on Decca, but this Nimbus version has a sense of complete empathy and understanding between soloist and conductor that is thoroughly convincing.
The CD which is volume 2 in the series (volume 1 is reviewed here
) is completed with rather watery performances of one or two Walton ‘lollipops’ that can be sourced elsewhere. If what you’re after is a really satisfying version of the Viola Concerto, this recording is seriously worth considering.