William WALTON (1902-1983)
Improvisations on an Impromptu of Benjamin Britten (1969) [13:35]
Cello Concerto (1956) [27:43]
Symphony No.2 (1960) [28:10]
Paul Watkins (cello)
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Edward Gardner
rec. Watford Colosseum, England, 2013/14
This is Edward Gardner’s second Walton disc for Chandos. Last year I was seriously impressed by his coupling of the First Symphony and the Violin Concerto (review) so I jumped at the opportunity to hear the follow-up disc. This latest Walton anthology from Gardner has already been the subject of a comprehensive and wide-ranging review from my colleague, Nick Barnard.

One advantage that Nick enjoyed over me was that he could access comparative versions of the rarely-recorded Improvisations on an Impromptu of Benjamin Britten. I used to have it on LP – it was coupled by André Previn with his first (LSO) recording of Belshazzar’s Feast – but I haven’t heard that performance in years and I’ve never encountered the Bryden Thomson account mentioned by Nick. I suppose, if I’m honest, that it’s not a work that I’ve felt compelled to seek out. Much though I admire Walton I think this is a score in which he gave the impression of mining old seams. Written for the San Francisco Symphony, it was based, with permission, on the theme of the Impromptu third movement of Britten’s Piano Concerto. Though the work is fairly brief it took some time to write: he sought Britten’s consent to use the theme in September 1968 but, as Anthony Burton relates in his booklet note, the orchestral material was only available to the orchestra a few days before the first performance in January 1970. This length of time may suggest that Walton laboured over the score but there may be at least another partial explanation for the long gestation period. In his Portrait of Walton the late Michael Kennedy states that the original title of the work was Elegiac Variations on a Theme by Benjamin Britten. However, the title was changed in November 1969 because Dr Ralph Dorfman, who had commissioned the piece in memory of his late wife, expressed a preference that she should be commemorated joyfully. Kennedy speculates that the extrovert conclusion may have been “a necessary afterthought.”

Michael Kennedy describes the score as “a hauntingly beautiful composition” and I admire very much the beautiful way in which the theme is presented and then the delicacy of the first section of the piece; all of this is delivered with great finesse by Gardner and the BBCSO. This is followed by what Anthony Burton justly describes as music in “Walton’s familiar brittle scherzo manner” which is brilliantly despatched in this performance. But here already I start to get the feeling that Walton is tending to go over old ground. That feeling is heightened over the remaining two Improvisations. In these two sections the music bears many Waltonian stylistic fingerprints and I was particularly struck by the instances of repeated figurations, especially in the work’s final section. The piece is splendidly performed here but I don’t feel it’s vintage Walton.

Some critics have been a bit sniffy about the Cello Concerto, suggesting that it lacks the stature and originality of the much earlier Violin Concerto and Viola Concerto. Those two scores are masterpieces and perhaps the Cello Concerto doesn’t quite reach those lofty heights but it’s still a fine and original work. It was written for and commissioned by Gregor Piatigorsky who gave the first performance with Charles Munch and the Boston Symphony Orchestra in January 1957, recording it with them just days later (review). Incidentally, Lyrita has just issued another Piatigorsky performance, which I have not yet heard, which I suspect is the European premiere of the concerto, which he gave with Sargent and the BBC Symphony Orchestra in February 1957 (review).

Piatigorsky’s Boston recording will always have a special place in the catalogue, of course, but I don’t think that Paul Watkins need fear comparisons with his great predecessor. Piatigorsky is recorded much more closely than Watkins so in his recording, which is now nearly 60 years old, we hear rather less of Walton’s skilful orchestral writing whereas it emerges in all its colour and inventiveness on this Chandos disc. It seems to me that Watkins catches the melancholic, songful mood of the first movement rather more successfully than Piatigorsky did; for one thing the initial tempo adopted by Piatigorsky and Munch is a notch faster than on the new version and as a result the music sounds a bit edgy. Walton exploits the cello’s lyrical side extremely successfully in this movement and Watkins plays the solo part very well indeed, his tone just right for the music. Meanwhile Gardner draws refined playing from the BBCSO. The second movement, effectively a scherzo, is brittle and mercurial with little let-up. There’s no trio to provide relaxation though there are a couple of short episodes of lyrical dalliance. Watkins and Gardner give a fine, scurrying performance. On the Piatigorsky disc, however, the big up-front sound of the soloist (at least as recorded) rather compromises the notion of a partnership between soloist and orchestra.

The structure of the concerto is rather unusual in that the third movement consists of a theme and four ‘improvisations’ followed by an extended coda. Moreover this final movement occupies nearly half the length of the concerto (13:34 in this performance). Helpfully, Chandos divide the movement into three tracks, though if I were being really picky it would have been even more valuable if each ‘improvisation’ had been separately tracked. Nonetheless, the division as it stands is most useful. Another structural point of interest is that two of the ‘improvisations’ - one marked Brioso (track 8, 0:00 – 1:45), the other Rapsodicamente (track 9, 0:00 – 2:19) - are for the cello alone; these almost fulfil the function of cadenzas. In between comes the third ‘improvisation’, which is for orchestra alone; this is a brilliant, dashing episode. Paul Watkins is hugely impressive throughout and shows real virtuosity in the two big unaccompanied passages. The extended coda, which includes a re-visitation of material from the first movement, is extremely well done here, bringing to an end a very fine performance of the Cello Concerto. Piatigorsky and Munch are admirable in the finale but I feel that the Watkins/Gardner account has an edge - and sonically it’s vastly superior.

In the Second Symphony Gardner has to contend again with a classic recording made in the USA; this time it’s George Szell’s 1961 Cleveland recording (review), which I have on an old Sony CD coupled with two more fabulous Walton recordings by Szell: the Partita, a work written for Szell and his orchestra, and the Variations on a Theme by Hindemith. (In passing, I wonder did Szell ever conduct the First Symphony? I should love to have heard him in that score.) The Second Symphony may not be as highly-charged as the First but it’s still a fine work and the scoring is colourful and inventive.

In the first movement Gardner drives the music forward expertly, getting keen-edged and admirably light-footed playing from the BBCSO. This is colourful, vivacious music that often has a Portsmouth Point-like bustle, though Walton’s yearning, romantic side is also often to the fore. Szell’s recording still sounds quite good though the sound is no match for the modern Chandos recording. Interpretatively I don’t think there’s a great deal to choose between Szell and Gardner though Szell is, if anything, even more razor-sharp in the fast movement. Out of interest I also compared Gardner with a more recent rival: the Hyperion recording by Martyn Brabbins (review). I admired this when it first came out – and I still do – but though the Brabbins account is well played his basic speed in this movement is a bit steadier than Gardner’s – or Szell’s – and sounds a bit cautious beside the others.

Gardner brings out well the Waltonian melancholy of the second movement, in a poetic reading. Brabbins is good too. Szell seems the most probing of all, though some may feel he appears a bit severe. The finale consists of a Theme and 10 Variations followed by a Fugato and Coda. Chandos helpfully divide the movement into two tracks, starting the second one at the Fugato. The variations are technically brilliant and extremely concise - all ten plus the theme on which they are based only play for some 5 ½ minutes. Gardner’s performance is very fine and the lyrical eighth and ninth variations sound absolutely ravishing. The Fugato is full of typical Waltonian brio and irregular rhythmical vitality. Though the Gardner performance is extremely fine Szell’s account is breath-taking. He takes a minute less than Gardner (8:28 against Gardner’s 9:22) yet the music never sounds rushed. Furthermore, though there’s brilliant display in the Clevelanders’ playing the slower episodes are wonderfully luminous. In Szell’s hands the Fugato and the music that follows is electrifying – it’s here where Szell is appreciably swifter than Gardner – and the Cleveland Orchestra’s collective virtuosity is simply dazzling. No wonder this recording still enjoys classic status after more than fifty years. Brabbins gives a very good account of the finale but the others – and Szell especially – have the edge.

No Walton devotee will want to be without Szell’s account of the Second Symphony but Edward Gardner’s new recording is the finest modern version that I’ve heard. Like the rest of the programme it’s expertly played and it’s evidently the work of a conductor who is very well versed in Walton’s music. I hope that there will be more instalments in this series and in particular that Gardner has his eye on the Partita, Hindemith Variations and the Viola Concerto.

The recording of the Second Symphony was auditioned in the MusicWeb Listening Studio recently and came in for much favourable comment. I’ve now been able to experience the whole SACD on my own equipment and I remain very impressed, Chandos has produced yet another winner of a recording here.

John Quinn

Previous review: Nick Barnard

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