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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, 18-19 September 2013 (Improvisations), 28-29 October 2014 (Symphony and Concerto)
CHANDOS CHSA5153 SACD [69:53]

A very fine and intelligently programmed disc of three of Walton's less popular major works. The main benefits of the disc are the superb playing of the BBC Symphony Orchestra - some ravishing playing from the woodwind principals in particular - caught in stunningly fine sound by Chandos. This is an SA-CD which I was able to listen to in standard stereo only; even then it sounds remarkable. Conductor Edward Gardner gained high praise for his earlier disc (review review) with the same forces heard in Walton's First Symphony and Violin Concerto and this is a logical and welcome continuation of this series.

Rightly or wrongly Walton's popular fame rests on the remarkable series of early works he wrote up to the beginning of World War II. Even today, critical opinion will tell you that the works of the 1950s onwards represent a retreat from the brilliance of those earlier pieces with ever more reliance on a regurgitation of Waltonian tricks of harmony and rhythm as original inspiration dried up. Certainly this disc, with three of his major works dating from between 1956 and 1969 will either refute or reinforce that opinion depending on the listener's sympathies. It is undoubtedly true that Walton did fall back on fail-safe compositional formulae - variation and passacaglia form especially as evidenced by each of the works presented here. However, my view has always been that even self-plagiarising Walton is far better than a dozen other composers.

As mentioned, this is a well conceived programme that opens with an impressive version of the Improvisations on a theme of Benjamin Britten - recorded at the same sessions as the Violin Concerto coupled with the earlier release of Symphony No.1. The qualities mentioned in my opening paragraph are immediately apparent: meltingly beautiful clarinet - listen to the echoed pp piu espressivo in bar 9 - and oboe solos set the tone. Indeed a characteristic of the entire disc is the quality of the reflective and tender passages. Gardner has a real feel for the poise and time-hanging quality of the music. This is all helped by Chandos engineering of supreme quality. I felt much the same about their work in the same venue with the same orchestra recording Suk (review). There is a sense of almost heightened clarity and awareness of detail which has been achieved without any apparent synthetic spotlighting of instruments. Previn's clarinettist in the LSO on EMI (review) - Jack Brymer? - achieves a similar lyricism but is spotlit. The only other version I know - this is one of the rarest in recording terms of a major Walton score - is also from Chandos; part of their Walton Edition from Bryden Thomson with the LPO (CHAN8959 or 9426). The LPO's wind are somewhat literal in such exalted company but in fact, apart from a slightly tubby recording in Chandos' preferred - in 1991 - church venue, this performance measures up very well as does Previn.

In all three scores Gardner displays a preference for extremes. The lyrical sections have a withdrawn often dreamlike quality that is both rapt and rapturous. In sharp contrast - and sharp is a very apt word - Walton's many energetic and rhythmically athletic passages are driven home with ferocious razor-edged precision. In the latter, the interest lies in Walton's approach to rhythm and the influence of early jazz on his scores. Aside from the parodies of Facade Walton absorbed the freedom jazz rhythm gave his scores rather than aping them as his friend and colleague Constant Lambert did in his Rio Grande. Which is probably why the latter now sounds like a period piece and Walton's music does not. How to approach the jazz-influenced rhythm today? Gardner opts for something very precise, defined and well articulated. Previn - or indeed Litton in his set of Walton discs with the Bournemouth SO on Decca (review review) - both opt for a slightly 'looser' feel to these rhythms. Is it any coincidence that they are both American? Important to say that both approaches work - indeed work well, but they do throw contrasting light on the music. Gardner's style makes for a more acidic, sardonic even aggressive result - which works particularly well in contrast given the beauty of the lyrical music. Previn and Litton are more benevolent and good-humoured which makes for less contrast but is without doubt a legitimate facet of Walton's personality and music.

Gardner makes as strong a case for the Improvisations as it is possible to imagine - out of interest it is worth hearing the live performance on YouTube from dedicatee Josef Krips - but it is hard not to think that Walton is struggling in this work. It proved to be his last extended original orchestral score with only the Varii Capricci (Chandos CHAN8959) - a transcription of the five guitar bagatelles - and the short Prologo e Fantasia (Chandos CHAN8968) post-dating it. At the same time Walton was having well-documented problems producing the score for The Battle of Britain which resulted in Malcolm Arnold both conducting and composing - un-named - extended sequences (review review). I like it because I like just about everything Walton ever wrote but I'm not sure I would use it as an example to someone discovering the composer for the first time as his best work.

The central work in the programme is the Cello Concerto. This was Walton's first major composition after the struggles and ultimate disappointments of his one grand opera Troilus and Cressida produced at Covent Garden in 1954 (review review review). I find the opera a remarkable and very powerful work however 'old-fashioned' it may be considered and however compromised by Christopher Hassall's libretto. I often wonder if the energy and passion that Walton poured into that score meant that his compositional confidence was fatally undermined by its rejection by the establishment. In one fell swoop - allied to Britten's recent triumph with Peter Grimes and elsewhere, the crown of being Britain's pre-eminent living composer had been passed on. From the Cello Concerto on there is a pervasive melancholy in Walton's music present but far from dominant in his pre-War music. Gardner is joined by Paul Watkins and again this is an impressively conceived and executed performance. The translucence of the engineering allows the extraordinary detail of Walton's scoring to register. One feature of the later Walton scores is his preference for bell-like sonorities. So to the standard double wind - all the second players doubling another instrument to extend the tonal range of the wind group he adds a harp, celesta and a percussion section which includes a xylophone but more tellingly vibraphone. The very first bar of the work shimmers with sonorous detail; over pizzicato violins four muted solo violas share a chord marked sul tasto - on the fingerboard which gives it a huskier more ethereal tone both tremolando and trilling - as well as ticking woodwind and combined chord from the harp, vibraphone and celesta - and that is just bar 1. Gardner is very good indeed in giving due weight to Walton's meticulous markings so every little tenuto line and hairpin registers - again aided by the super-fine engineering. Likewise Watkins who proves himself an excellent soloist - technically unphased the considerable demands of the score but also fully sympathetic to Walton's emotionally ambiguous soundscape.

This is not to say that this performance sweeps all before it. Without doubt it is very fine indeed but in many ways this - and the Symphony No.2 - has been a lucky score on disc. For the purposes of this review I have revisited versions from Tim Hugh on Naxos, Robert Cohen on Decca, Paul Tortelier and Lynn Harrell on EMI, Pierre Fournier with Walton conducting a live performance on BBC Legends as well as the two earlier Chandos recordings from Ralph Kirshbaum and Raphael Wallfisch (CHAN8959) - not to mention dedicatee Gregor Piatigorsky or Janos Starker (09026 61695 2) on RCA and Yo-Yo Ma on Sony (Masterworks MK39541) and many others which I do not know. All of the versions I have heard offer convincing and wholly enjoyable performances. As so often, one might prefer a phrase here or a tempo there. My only disappointment with Watkins was the central Allegro appassionato. Technically this is phenomenal and he gets closer to the quarter note/crochet 138-144 than any other version I have heard but he adopts a very intense fast vibrato and pressed tone which gives the music a histrionic character that I do not find appropriate. This is the one time on this disc I was not convinced by Gardner's predilection for snapping tempi. Wallfisch for one - recorded at the same sessions as the Improvisations - is markedly steadier but finds the light and shade and ambiguity that surely lies at the heart of so much Walton. It was for this work that he rather infamously said - to paraphrase - he would write anything for anyone as long as they paid well - and if they paid in dollars he'd write even better. Hard not to read this as a defensive comment from a sensitive artist still wounded by the rejection of Troilus. Brilliant as Watkins is here this reading registers as one-dimensional. This is pointed up all the more by the range of tonal colour and emotion he finds so effectively in the work's closing movement - yet another theme and variations. Again Watkins and Gardner are especially adept at finding the regretful and nostalgic element; the "At The Haunted End Of The Day" quality that pervades so much later Walton.

From this work onwards Walton seemed incapable of not writing at least part of a work in variation form. However the sense both here and in the Symphony is that Walton's use of variation and control of the larger structure is made from a position of strength rather than as a way of 'stringing out' limited material. Indeed, listening to the way Walton returns to the earlier material in the Concerto's closing pages — Chandos sensibly split this movement into three tracks — makes one realise just how skilfully the form of the work is handled. Listening to a number of versions in close sequence brought home to me that this is indeed a very fine work and one that should not be considered as the weakest of the Walton string concertos.

If the Cello Concerto is considered the poor relation of the viola or violin concertos then the same can be said of the Second Symphony in relation to the First. Contemporary critics seemed startled and disappointed that Walton had not written a Symphony No.1 Mark II. The key again lies in the absence of certainty. Part of the undoubted greatness of the earlier work is the absolute directness of its musical thoughts and gestures. The progression through movement to movement to overwhelming conclusion is linear and brooks no compromise. By 1960 the world and indeed Walton was far less certain of anything. A successful performance embraces these dichotomies that occur sometimes within a page of music - welding together the contradictions that threaten to fragment the work. Again Gardner succeeds through maximising the contrasts. As previously mentioned, I have not heard the opening pages of the central Lento Assai played with such tender poise. There is a gentle, dream-like state to it that is both remarkable and deeply moving - for me the highlight of the entire disc - culminating in a glorious horn solo (track 11 5:45). The Chandos engineering is a marvel here - every strand of Walton's complex orchestration registering. Worth noting that this is one of Walton's most thickly scored works aside from the festive excesses of Belshazzar's Feast. The wind is now tripled, brass is standard, but a fourth percussionist is required as well as a piano alongside the celesta and second harp. Not that Walton over-scores, far from it - the tubular bell has just one note to play - and is nearly inaudible in every recording except that by Paul Daniels on Naxos 8.553402. One slight surprise; the movement reaches a powerful climax with a rising scale from the three trumpets - an echo perhaps of a similar effect in Elgar's Second Symphony's slow movement? - (track 11 7:18 - rehearsal figure 111) does not surge through the texture as it does for Previn - but then Previn does not follow the con moto marking that follows nearly as diligently as Gardner. Indeed it occurred to me, listening to this movement in particular, that there is an operatic emotionalism to it that seems to chime especially well with Gardner and his background in opera. He knows when to push impetuously on or linger lovingly around a phrase's end.

Contrast is again the name of the game in the Passacaglia/Finale - effectively a set of ten variations with a concluding fugato coda. Much was made at the time of its composition that the theme for the Passacaglia is made up of the 12 semitones of the chromatic scale implying that Walton was giving a nod towards serial composition. Yes he does 'obey' some of the concepts implicit in such works but Frank Howes in his study "The Music of William Walton" rightly compares the process more to the canto fermo that Britten used in his opera The Turn of the Screw which similarly has a tone row as its base.

Gardner's skill is again to fuse the strongly contrasting sections into a coherent whole. As recorded the BBC brass do not have the burnished weight of Previn's LSO which comes to bear when Walton hits ceremonial mode but it is all a matter of small degree - this is exceptionally accomplished playing. As mentioned, this Symphony has been lucky in the recording studio. The first recording was the legendary version on Sony/CBS from George Szell and The Cleveland Orchestra (review). Gardner seems to model many of his basic tempi quite closely on Szell - and why not - but the modern engineering shows a clean pair of heels to the now fifty year old CBS recording. However, I am not sure any newer recording has ever quite achieved the extraordinary virtuosity of the Clevelanders. Again, it is important to stress that such an approach reveals only one facet and Gardner is very good at exploring the warmth as well as virtuosity in this music. The one slight disappointment is that his basic tempo for the Fugato which occurs after the ten variations is steadier than I was expecting. This is a brute to play and just about all the recordings except Cleveland reveal a degree of orchestral stress in the execution of this tongue and finger-twister of a passage.

The Chandos liner was written by Anthony Burton and is in the standard tri-lingual format. Curiously Burton writes that the Symphony is "consciously or unconsciously" modelled on Roussel's Third Symphony. The grounds for this are a letter from Walton to his publisher around the time the Symphony was being formulated in which he requests being sent various scores including the Roussel. What Burton does not mention are the other scores which included Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde and Ninth Symphony and Prokofiev's Sixth and Seventh Symphonies - so why not them as a model instead? The Roussel is in four movements, contains no variation movement and is built from a single five note cell. The Walton is in three and has no single unifying motif. Michael Kennedy - the source of Burton's quotation does find a Rousselian link later; between the Walton Partita and the Roussel Suite in F (another requested score) which is far more legitimate. Howes makes no such link either although interestingly he finds one passage to have a similar "acidulated tonality" to Roussel's Second Symphony.

Given the relative shortness of the Symphony couplings can often be a decisive factor. Of the several versions I know I have to say that all have qualities and are now available in keenly-priced twofers or bargain sets. These would include Litton in Bournemouth on Decca, Previn with the LSO on Warner/EMI, Mackerras with the LSO on Warner/EMI (CD-EMX2151), Brabbins with the BBC Scottish SO on Hyperion and Szell in Cleveland on Sony/CBS and Thomson with the LPO also on Chandos. The only version I would avoid is Arwel Hughes on BIS SACD-1646.

All in all a very fine disc indeed which if the particular couplings appeal, or if state of the art sound is a deciding factor demands very serious if not all-conquering consideration. The Concerto and Symphony are major yet elusive works and they receive performances here which increase their stature and improve our knowledge of these impressive works.

Nick Barnard


 

 




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