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Sir William WALTON (1902-83)
Troilus and Cressida (1954) [138.27]
Richard Lewis (tenor) – Troilus: Magda Laszlo (soprano) – Cressida: Peter Pears (tenor) – Pandarus: Frederick Dahlberg (bass) – Calchas: Geraint Evans (baritone) – Antenor: Forbes Robinson (bass) – Horaste: Otakar Kraus (baritone) – Diomede: Barbara Howitt (contralto) – Evadne: Gordon Farrell (baritone) – Priest: Clifford Starr and Stanley Cooper (tenor and baritone) – Watchmen
Covent Garden Chorus and Orchestra/Sir Malcolm Sargent
rec. Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, 21 December 1954
Texts not provided
PRISTINE AUDIO PACO138 [61.16 + 77.11]

Walton was an incorrigible and inveterate reviser of his own scores, to an extent that might be described as tinkering, or niggling at details. This may have been in part because he rarely or never conducted his own first performances (although he made quite a number of recordings of them) and therefore failed to make revisions during the process of rehearsal, instead he returned to the music after the event and made alterations both major and minor in scale. Nowhere was this tendency more evident than in his treatment of his one large-scale opera Troilus and Cressida. Within weeks of its Covent Garden première on 3 December 1954 he was making small cuts, and for a later revival in 1963 he made yet more. Then in the 1970s he reworked the score even more substantially, altering the soprano role of Cressida to a mezzo-soprano for a series of stage performances with Dame Janet Baker; at the same time he took still more swingeing shears to whole sections of the score, deleting passages that did not even feature Cressida and even removing the climax of the love duet. These live performances formed the basis for a complete EMI recording, but when Richard Hickox came to record the opera in the studio for Chandos’s ‘Walton Edition’ he restored the soprano register for Cressida and returned the love duet to its original form, while leaving the remainder of Walton’s cuts intact. There is no doubt that this Hickox recording is the best way in which the listener can come to know the score – the EMI set is generally fine, but the sound of the live acoustic is dry and Richard Cassilly, a Covent Garden stalwart in the early Colin Davis years, lacks the warmth of Arthur Davies for Opera North and Hickox. Even better is Richard Lewis, who took the part in an LP of excerpts conducted by Walton himself and subsequently released by EMI together with a patch from a Decca recording of a scene featuring Peter Pears.

Now we have this new set, taken from a live Covent Garden performance given some three weeks after the première, which enables us to hear Lewis and Pears in complete renditions of the roles they created. It also, and even more valuably, enables us to hear the opera in the form that Walton originally envisaged; and the results are quite revelatory, giving the action a dramatic shape and musical flow that the composer’s later excisions distorted badly, particularly in the exposition of Act One. We are also given the opportunity to hear the concerted passage for female voices that precedes Cressida’s aria in Act Two, which Walton subsequently extracted for separate performance (CD 1 track 13, 5.50), and from which only an isolated phrase remains as a forlorn remnant in the revised version. The result in the original flows far more smoothly. Similarly, it is good to have the more extended version of the scene where Pandarus reports on Troilus’s jealousy (CD 1 track 16, 2.00) which gives Troilus’s interruption more point as he seeks to reassure Cassandra’s fears.

There has been an earlier release taken from a BBC recording of a different performance from the first series of performances, which I have not heard; but the set here draws from unbroadcast 33rpm acetate discs, which are not free from surface noise which has presumably resulted from wear over the years. The recording is provisionally dated to 21 December 1954 on the basis that the role of Evadne is taken by Barbara Howitt, standing in for Monica Sinclair (although quite a lot of the latter’s assumption of the role in Act Three can be heard on the EMI disc of excerpts); Sinclair is credited as singing on the alternative recording from December 1954.

While it is extremely interesting to hear the score in the form which Walton originally intended, the quality of the performance and the recorded sound are not always sufficient to let us hear all the detail we might ideally like. Frederick Dahlberg’s black-voiced Calchas early displays evidence of strain on the higher notes. Geraint Evans as Antenor makes his mark, as one would expect, in his dispute with the priest which Walton later largely excised; but Richard Lewis’s entry into the scene lacks the sense of authority one would ideally welcome, and the sound of his voice is much better captured in the EMI excerpts than here, where the richness of his tone is minimised in such lyrical passages as “Is Cressida a slave?” (track 4).

Magda Laszlo actually sounds more substantial in tone as Cressida, but her command of English and her engagement with the text is less involved than was Schwarzkopf in the EMI excerpts; Judith Howarth and Janet Baker in the later sets are both far better in terms of giving us the capricious and temperamental heroine that Walton clearly envisioned. Clearly far from comfortable with the language, which is sometimes grossly mispronounced, Laszlo tends to compensate by singing too loudly; delicacy is a commodity in short supply. On the other hand, Peter Pears is more engaging as Pandarus than either of his successors, and he gives us the passages notated by Walton in falsetto in the manner indicated.

Otakar Kraus, as Cressida’s new lover, sounds decidedly villainous (Alan Opie for Hickox is far more credibly seductive) and his command of English comes and goes; Forbes Robinson is luxury casting in the minor role of Horaste. Barbara Howitt lacks the depth of tone which Monica Sinclair brought to the part of the treacherous maid, and her spoken delivery of the words of the Oracle of Delphi (another of Walton’s cuts) lacks the gravity that is surely required. The watchman whose offstage calls open Act Three is not credited either on the CD cover or in the BBC announcements (the details above are taken from the Pristine website) but sounds properly distant, unlike the over-insistent trumpet fanfares which accompany the calls are far too closely balanced.

Oddly enough the conducting of Sir Malcolm Sargent, which was widely blamed for shortcomings in the performance, sounds convincing enough although he is better in the more extended lyrical passages than in the delicate scherzo-like accompaniment to Pandarus, where he was reportedly unwilling to beat time in bars where the orchestra was silent. In the sinister accompaniment to “No answering sign” (CD2, track 11) Sargent actually achieves a more intense atmosphere than Walton himself on the disc of EMI excerpts, and he even manages to persuade Laszlo to attempt to sing softly for a change.

The recorded balance of the BBC broadcast also gives us plenty of body in the orchestral sound, which grows more convincing as the performance proceeds (perhaps I was simply becoming more accustomed to the limitations of the recording). The BBC’s announcements at the beginning of each Act and at the end are retained, but are separately tracked and so can easily be skipped. The notes with the issue are limited, but Pristine’s website gives further information (although not a text). These online notes also give specific details of Walton’s alterations to the score.

Those who appreciate Walton’s opera in one or another of its revisions will welcome the chance to hear the composer’s original thoughts; and even others, although Hickox’s set will remain the primary recommendation, may well conclude that the Walton’s reconsiderations were not always improvements. Apparently Walton’s executors are unwilling to allow the deleted passages to be exhumed from the manuscript (the parts have been destroyed). They are wrong. Even were the excisions of little or no merit (which is not true) hearing the music could only enhance the listener’s admiration for the composer’s work, as we have discovered in the case of the first inspirations for Vaughan Williams’s London Symphony, Barber’s Antony and Cleopatra, Britten’s Billy Budd, practically any Bruckner symphony you care to name, and a whole host of other examples.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

 

 




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