Sir William WALTON (1902-1983) London Concert National Anthem Anniversary Fanfare Orb and Sceptre Violin Concerto Belshazzar's Feast
Kyung-Wha Chung (violin) Sir Thomas Allen (baritone)
Philharmonia Orchestra/André Previn
rec. live, Royal Festival Hall, London, Monday, 29 March 1982
Sound Format: PCM Stereo
Picture Format: 4:3
Original Language: English
Subtitles: English, German, French ARTHAUS MUSIK DVD 109110 [86:00]
This is a stunning concert from 35 years ago filmed live by the BBC at the Royal Festival Hall. It was broadcast on BBC2 with the sound also carried by BBC Radio 3. The event took place in the year before Walton's death at his home on the Mediterranean island of Ischia and in his eightieth birthday year. HRH Princess Alexandra was present in the Royal Box with the composer and his wife. Strangely Lady Walton sits five or six seats away from him in Part I but by the time we get to Part II she is in her rightful place in the next seat.
Walton's Previn, Previn's Walton. They belong together and have done so since Previn's famous 1966 RCA-BMG recording of the First Symphony with the LSO. I suspect there is no true connection but the young Previn seems to have stepped in to the role just as the composer himself appears to have begun taking a back-step away from conducting his own works. After his brief RCA sojourn Previn migrated to EMI Classics and there recorded the Second Symphony and a stunning Belshazzar's Feast coupled with the 'wallflower' that is the Britten Impromptu Improvisations. Later Previn moved to Telarc where he celebrated with an excellently empowered mid-1980s recording of the First Symphony.
This RFH concert was a no-expense-spared elite affair with Kyung-Wha Chung as the violin soloist. She had recorded the Concerto with Decca and Previn and his accustomed LSO in 1973 (Decca SXL6601). The baritone Thomas Allen is also luxury casting. His voice is totally secure, a power-blast when needed, set-square enunciation with natural yet extraordinary and intelligently acted delivery. The producer is Humphrey Burton and it shows. The shots are eminent and musically literate. Someone has the score to hand and the visual cutting and the moves from one part of the orchestra or choir or between Chung and Previn is faultless - utterly fluent. The cameras (three or four, surely) also move around the audience and the close-proximity shots of Previn on the rostrum are really quite intriguing. The face-on shots of Previn are the only reminders that this is a DVD of film and sound taken down in the early 1980s: some negligible but noticeable 625 line striation.
At the start the DVD captures the RFH scene and atmosphere almost as if it were a concert overture in its own right. The way this production is structured one gains a good sense of whole-concert continuity even if the March includes two brief full colour extracts from the 1953 Coronation for which Orb and Sceptre was written. We then launch into the National Anthem - is that a Walton arrangement? - followed by a brief Walton fanfare leading straight into Orb and Sceptre. The harp is gorgeously balanced in the March and Previn is a delight to watch. His podium presence is not what you would call impassive but neither is it anything other than lovingly dignified. There's delight at play there - his face a window to the soul. A latter-day example of the same approach can be found in John Wilson who I think we will be seeing in a different light and in unaccustomed repertoire in years to come. Previn downplays Orb and Sceptre at first but pulls out all the panache in its last few moments. There's an audience applause recall for Orb and Sceptre even if it cannot shake off being a slightly ill-favoured brother to Crown Imperial.
The Violin Concerto is one of Walton's vintage works. Written for Heifetz, the Concerto was recorded by him in its original and revised versions with the conductors Goossens and Walton himself (reviewreview). Heifetz is seen in a typically unsmiling still, just before Chung and Previn walk on to the stage. The choir are there throughout the concert as an appreciative component of the audience. The Concerto receives a stunning performance at all levels. The camera dots among the orchestral principals recording this lapidary work in delightful detail. Chung at the start of the third movement delivers some satisfyingly guttural rasps. She is caught at her quicksilver zenith; rejoice indeed. Part I fades out to applause. By the way the hall is crammed full.
Part II reappears in a quick fade-back and we are into the spectacular, golden and jazzily syncopated Belshazzar's Feast. The jazzy foot-tapping rhythms of the final section seem utterly apt to Previn's tastes; I rather wish he had also recorded Walton's under-rated Sinfonia Concertante, perhaps as the pianist. Right from the start the portents are good: listen to those trombones and their precisely terraced yet not mechanistic dynamics. Allen gives it his considerable all with full-face acted delivery, raised eyebrows and every appearance of ruthlessly channelling those pagan gods. The no doubt hard-won unanimity of the choir - and not just on the shouted vituperative 'Slain!" - is a delight. No wonder the chorus-master joined Previn and Allen onstage at the end to accept the long-sustained ovation. The choir is impressive with every member looking caught up in the moment. Orchestral details are well voiced and viewed. I noted the ringing presence of a real anvil and a proper ironmongery hammer. The huge visual breadth of the RFH organ was several times conveyed. In Ch. 14, towards the end, Burton allows himself a rare sustained film-blend 'ghost' of Previn conducting and the massed choir singing. The DVD has subtitles you can turn on so if you want to sing with the choir or Allen then that's your choice.
The documentation for this DVD is not perfect. It's not just the scant booklet essay - not bad really - but the date of the concert is not given anywhere. I had to track it down through the BBC Genome - a wonderful free broadcast history facility. From this we learn that the Radio 3 relay had a biographical interlude written by Gillian Widdicombe during the interval. Comments from the composer were also carried. The announcer was Cormac Rigby although there are no spoken introductions on the DVD nor is the biographical talk included.
At the end Walton, who is applauded to the skies by everyone in the hall, is visibly moved. The performances that night were special indeed. Waltonians will want this but it is also an invaluable and deeply enjoyable historic document of Previn, Chung, Allen and Burton.