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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
ONYX 4168 [73:50]

This is an impressive and wholly enjoyable recording of Walton’s two symphonies. As ever, for those who feel that works of this stature deserve as wide an international dissemination as possible it is particularly gratifying to hear a conductor of Kirill Karabits’ stature giving interpretations of this calibre and obvious relish.

But, frankly, who could not respond to the enduring power and emotional directness of Symphony No.1 in particular. The Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra are no strangers to this work on disc - this is the third version I know, coming after Vernon Handley’s 1988 EMI/Warner version and Andrew Litton’s 2002 recording as part of a 4-disc centenary set. All three versions are very good indeed - testament to the enduring calibre of the Bournemouth Orchestra. Indeed these Symphonies have been lucky on disc inspiring conductors and players to produce impressive performances. Apart from the rare BIS failure in Lille with the symphonies I am not sure that I have a single version of either work in my collection that I do not enjoy. That said, I no longer find my first-love recording of this work from Malcolm Sargent and the Philharmonia to be nearly as impressive as I once thought. A performance with nearly all the edges smoothed off. So to discuss the relative merits of this new disc is a matter of degree.

In Symphony No.1 Karabits is an urgent and incisive conductor. Not that he is the fastest by the stopwatch alone - interestingly he is very close to Walton’s own timings with the Philharmonia - but the style of playing he draws from the orchestra emphasises the bite and brio of the score. I must admit that I find Deborah Spanton’s engineering - although detailed and rich - a fraction too resonant for both symphonies. In the first symphony this has the effect of blurring the all-important bass lines as they grind against each other and more damagingly in the brighter-scored second symphony slightly blunting the impact of Walton’s glittering orchestration. Given Karabit’s penchant for this youthful dynamism, it is no surprise that the central movements embody both the best and less-impressive results of this approach. The second movement Presto con malizia is a tour-de-force and Karabits captures the gleeful malice superbly. Conversely, there are greater depths to be plumbed in the third movement (Andante con malinconia) than Karabits currently finds. For a generally epic approach to the whole work it is certainly also worth hearing Haitink with the Philharmonia who expands this movement to 14:08 compared to Karabits’ 10:40 - Haitink takes a good two and half minutes longer in the opening movement as well. A middle ground is taken by Mackerras with the LPO who is about a minute and half longer than Karabits, producing weight of utterance without distorting the essential youthful energy of the work.

Famously, the work was first performed without its finale and the sense remains - although much of that movement was sketched before other parts of the work - that it was rather tacked on afterwards and that the level of inspiration is lower. A major part of the success of this new disc is that Karabits integrates the finale into the whole work particularly well. For Walton, when inspiration started to run dry he often turned to a fugue, as he does in this movement - the Bournemouth players play this tricky and angular passage with real panache and Karabits drive the music forward with thrilling impetus although at the point the work is crowned with the entry of the two sets of timps and the tam-tam again I find the sound just blurs the harmonic and rhythmic detail more than I would like. All of the Bournemouth players, both as soloists and sections, play very well indeed but I must especially mention the principal bassoon. I do not know who the musician is but this is remarkably expressive and intense playing. As it happens Walton writes some particularly plangent and pained lines in this work for the bassoon and they are played here with stand-out sensitivity - ear-catching playing of the highest order.

Much as I love the second Symphony as well, I do not think many people would say it is of the same artistic stature as the earlier work. However, I do believe that in its own right and on its own terms, it is still a very fine work indeed. Aside from the ‘festive’ pieces such as Belshazzar’s Feast the work is notable for the size of the orchestra - by some way the largest Walton wrote for in a concert work. Aside from triple woodwind, the brass and strings are quite standard, but the percussion requires four players to cover the standard instruments plus a vibraphone, glockenspiel and xylophone to complement a piano, celeste, and two harps. Rather erroneously the liner note by Daniel Jaffé implies that this scoring influenced Hollywood film composers such as John Williams. I would suggest the presence of the piano/harps and tuned percussion is much more a Korngoldian sound-world. That said Walton uses those instruments in a typically Waltonian way, with the sound palate moved from the Sibelian pedal-notes of the first Symphony to the high-lying brilliance of these instruments. The resonance of the Lighthouse Poole does blunt this effect - indeed I would have liked the subtle use of the vibraphone and harps to register more clearly in the general mix. A tiny detail - in a little piece of luxury scoring Walton asks the tubular bell to play a single note - a D - twelve bars from the end - it is all but inaudible in this new recording.

The emotions of the first symphony are literally written into each movement’s titles. The second Symphony is an altogether more slippery and ambiguous work. On the printed page the score is more complex and the instrumental writing more a collage of effects. Karabits and his Bournemouth players produce a supremely coherent and accomplished reading of the score. My only, reservation, though is that it is a rather literal performance - you get a very accurate presentation of the score but one that does not present the chameleon range of expression which I believe the work possesses. Interestingly, given that incisiveness was a feature of the previous symphony Karabits is considerably more relaxed in this work, to the point where I think he rather misses the molto marking of the opening allegro molto. This work was also recorded by Litton in Bournemouth and as a whole I find him more impressive and empathetic with this symphony than Karabits. Litton’s recording allows all the extra instrumentation noted above to register to greater effect as well.

The coupling of these two symphonies is logical and generous but by no means unique. Brabbins on Hyperion generously adds the little Siesta. I would not choose Brabbins for my desert island in either main work, but he would edge out Karabits if forced to choose. I have deliberately avoided mentioning the classic recordings of either work from Previn/LSO or Szell/Cleveland. In its most recent remastering the Previn still sounds remarkably well and is a superb version. I can understand Walton’s admiration for the Szell because of the sheer virtuosity of the performance but the recording does now show its age and as I mentioned in relation to Karabits its a performance long on virtuosity but short on nuance. If one conductor working with different Orchestras is acceptable I find Mackerras on EMI with the LPO & LSO to be very fine. One conductor/one orchestra on more than one disc opens up more possibilities. Of recent recordings Edward Gardner on Chandos with the BBC SO is very good with couplings of string concerti equally impressive - being recorded in fine SA-CD sound is an added temptation there.

Onyx’s presentation is pretty minimalist - apparently artist biographies are available online but I must admit to being part of a generation that likes this information in front of me in a booklet when I am listening. Daniel Jaffé’s liner is succinct but useful, even if I disagree about the film-music influence. I liked his reference to Walton “knocking Bax off the map” in 1935. The young usurper challenging the establishment - of course within the decade the same had happened in reverse with Walton and Britten.

This is a very enjoyable disc and it is good to report that the current generation of Bournemouth players perform at such a high level. My sense is that Karabits’ interpretations of both works will deepen over time so I hope that he will have the opportunity to repeat these works both in Bournemouth and with other orchestras he works with. Clearly he has considerable empathy for the emotional landscape of Symphony No.1 in particular. Not versions to displace favoured performances quite yet.

Nick Barnard
Previous reviews: John Quinn ~ Ian Lace (Recording of the Month)



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