Sir William WALTON (1902-1983)
Symphony No 1 in B flat minor (1933-35) [43:13]
Symphony No 2 (1960) [30:15]
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/Kirill Karabits
rec. 2016, The Lighthouse, Poole Dorset. DDD ONYX CLASSICS4168 [73:50]
Unfortunately, I missed the broadcast of the BBC Prom in August this year when Kirill Karabits and the Bournemouth Symphony concluded their programme with Belshazzar’s Feast. My Seen and Heard colleague, Alan Sanders, found much to admire during the concert though some of Karabits’ swift tempi in Walton’s choral extravaganza left him thoughtful (review). I have been impressed with Karabits’ Prokofiev symphony cycle for Onyx so I was keen to experience his Walton.
His account of the First Symphony seems to me to be a complete success. The first movement is one of the most dynamic and urgent pieces of symphonic writing I know and it’s a big test for a conductor to sustain the dynamism and tension, almost without a break. Right from the start Karabits impresses; his rhythms are biting and he achieves - and sustains – excellent momentum. As the movement progresses the reading continues to be highly charged and the BSO plays with great commitment. Not everything is tense and driving, however; the passages of Waltonian melancholy – for instance the episode from 5:18, led off by a high bassoon solo – are very well done, though even here the music is sharply pointed. Each time I’ve listened I’ve had the distinct impression that Karabits seems consistently to be looking forward rather than simply living in the moment and that’s greatly to be welcomed. His climaxes are potent and by the time the movement comes to an end you feel you’ve been gripped from start to finish.
The Scherzo is vital and dynamic. Again, the rhythms are sharply pointed. A special round of metaphorical applause for the BSO timpanist; this crucial part is played with great dynamism. I also revelled in the contributions of the horn section. There’s plangent melancholy at the start of the slow movement. Karabits leads an eloquent and convincingly shaped performance of this deeply-felt music and he builds the movement to a powerful climax. He is convincing, too, in the big rhetorical opening of the finale. When he gets to the main body of the movement, marked Brioso ed ardentemente, that’s just how the music comes across in a reading that’s extremely athletic. The orchestral playing is thrusting and full of energy. The first of the movement’s fugues is spiky while the second fugue, later on, is very urgent and bustling – by the time the second fugue is reached the movement has built up a real head of steam. The final few minutes are imposing and powerful, featuring splendid contributions from the timpani and brass.
For a comparison I decided not to turn to the classic André Previn reading, which has been my go-to version for as long as I can remember (review). Instead I listened to the Hyperion recording by Martyn Brabbins which I much admired when it was first released (review). This seemed to me to be a logical choice since to the best of my knowledge Brabbins is the only other conductor who offers both the Walton symphonies together, as Karabits does. To be honest, I find very little to choose between Karabits and Brabbins. I think that perhaps the Onyx sound is somewhat closer and punchier than Hyperion’s very successful recording. I detected no significant variances in the way the respective conductors treat the music. Perhaps Brabbins’ solo flute is a bit more desolate at the start of the third movement but that’s a very minor point. Both performances are extremely successful and very well played. In short, it would be wrong of me to pretend I can prefer one over the other.
The Second Symphony was performed by Karabits and the orchestra as part of the opening concert in their 2016/17 season. My colleague Ian Lace attended that concert, which took place the evening before the sessions for this CD, and he was impressed, I see. (review).
The Second Symphony has always stood in the shadows of the First. It’s a piece that I admire but I’ve never felt that it contains music that simply had to be written, which is very much the case with its intense predecessor. It was commissioned by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and was intended to celebrate the 750th anniversary of Liverpool in 1957. In the event, for various reasons, Walton did not complete the score until 1960. It’s in three movements and is more compact than the First Symphony. In his notes Daniel Jaffé rightly points out the Stravinskian tone of the first movement. That’s certainly brought out by Kirill Karabits but as I listened I was put in mind also – and not just in the first movement - of the music of Prokofiev. I don’t think that’s simply because I’ve heard this conductor and orchestra in a lot of Prokofiev’s music; the glittering nature of Walton’s orchestration at times is a contributory factor too. One other important thing to note is that, as Michael Kennedy reminded us in the notes for Martyn Brabbins’ recording, the slow movement calls to mind the sound world of Troilus and Cressida (1947-50).
In the first movement I think Martyn Brabbins is more successful in bringing out the playfulness in Walton’s music. Karabits, by contrast, is rather more deliberate and makes the music weightier. Karabits is biting in the central section of the movement. I think his reading – and the BSO’s delivery of the music - is highly commendable but on balance I prefer the lighter touch and brisker approach of Brabbins.
Karabits impresses in the second movement, conveying the bitter-sweet lyricism of Walton’s writing. At around 5:00 the music becomes tart in tone and the skies darken for a while before the wonderful horn melody (5:42), delicately accompanied. This horn solo is so romantic - so Walton – and Karabits does the passage very well. He brings the movement to an ardent climax (from 7:26). By comparison Brabbins is perhaps a bit more relaxed and lyrical in this movement and his main climax is radiant. Overall, though, I think the readings of both conductors are very successful.
The opening of the finale is boldly announced in the Karabits performance. Then the BSO are put through their collective paces in the theme and variations section. The variations are compact and often sparkling, even when the music slows down. In the fugue that follows (5:38) Karabits is quite a bit more deliberate than Brabbins. The British conductor’s performance is much fleeter of foot and I prefer it. Mind you, in this finale all must still bend the knee before the imperious virtuosity of George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra. Szell’s fugue goes like the wind but with no compromise in terms of precision. In fact, Szell despatches the finale in a mere 8:28. If that suggests he’s rushed by the side of Brabbins (10:12) or Karabits (9:59) such is not the case; the Cleveland performance is as exhilarating as it is virtuosic. Indeed. Szell’s 1961 recording of the Second Symphony remains mandatory listening, especially since it’s coupled with dazzling accounts of the Partita and the Hindemith Variations (review).
Reverting to Karabits and his “competition” with Brabbins, I think that it’s Brabbins who has the edge on account of his defter treatment of the outer movements of the Second Symphony. However, I’ve reached that verdict on the basis of A/B comparisons which not all collectors will make. In truth, the margins between the two performances are narrow and anyone buying this Karabits disc will feel well content, I believe. And I should restate that honours are just about even in the case of the First Symphony. I think it’s no mean achievement for Karabits to compare so favourably with performances led by a conductor who is widely acknowledged for his performances of British music. I hope very much that Karabits will continue to explore British repertoire.
I’ve heard several of the recordings that Karabits and the BSO have made for Onyx and I’ve found the recorded sound to be very good. An interesting comparative opportunity presented itself, however, with the recent arrival of a Chandos disc of orchestral music by Kara Karayev. This, I think, is the first time that Chandos has recorded the BSO with Karabits on the podium. The recording was much praised in its download form by Dan Morgan. With the sound of Karabits’ traversal of Walton’s First completely fresh in my ears I sampled the Chandos disc; I took care to listen to it as a CD rather than as an SACD so that I was comparing like for like. I found that I needed to increase the volume setting by two or three notches after taking the Onyx disc out of my player but once I’d done that the Chandos sound was, predictably, full-bodied and detailed. Chandos offer plenty of presence; it’s a very fine recording. Having said that, I don’t believe Deborah Spanton’s engineering for Onyx need fear the comparison. This Onyx disc offers sound that is robust, punchy and detailed.
So, my advice to prospective purchasers would be that if you already have the Hyperion coupling of Walton’s two symphonies I think you can rest content. However, if you do not have the Brabbins and want a disc coupling these two works then this fine new Karabits CD has strong claims to your attention.