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Sir William WALTON (1902-1983)
Symphony No. 1 in B flat minor (1932-1935, arr. 1949 for piano duet by Herbert Murrill) [44:20] Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
Suite for Four Hands on one pianoforte (1893) [9:26] Sir William WALTON Crown Imperial (1937, arr. for piano duet by Herbert Murrill) [8:04]
Lynn Arnold, Charles Matthews (piano duet)
rec. 7-9 January 2021, West Road Concert Hall, Cambridge, UK ALBION RECORDS ALBCD047 [61:50]
I am not completely convinced by this four-handed piano version of William Walton’s First Symphony. I cannot fault the playing, and it is good to have what I imagine is a premiere recording of Herbert Murrill’s thoughtful transcription. The liner notes hit the nail on the head. F.L.B. (possibly Ferrucio Bonavia?) of the Western Morning News (6 June 1938, p. 2) said that this work “has some formidable and strenuous pages and is more likely to be tackled by serious students of music, than duettists giving an evening’s entertainment”. The notes do not quote F.L.B.’s another statement: “a piano version is usually a first-rate means of getting to the main outlines of an orchestral work, however much one may miss in detail, but it may be that the texture of Mr. Walton’s symphony may not lend itself too well to a piano version”.
The truth may lie somewhere in between. The transcription reveals details of the score that have eluded me in many hearings of the orchestral original. This is especially evident in the troubled but often haunting Andante con malinconia. F.L.B. correctly, I suppose, assumed that even enthusiasts of Walton’s music will prefer the orchestral version. I think the second movement Presto, con malizia works best for the piano duet. It is a regular toccata and a vibrant tour de force. The overall mood of the Symphony – gritty, taut and often severe – reflects the malice and melancholy inherent in the movements’ titles. Lynn Arnold and Charles Matthews capture these diverse moods well.
Written under the tutelage of Charles Hubert Hastings Parry, Vaughan Williams’s Suite for Four Hands on one pianoforte is a thoroughly enjoyable work. Despite being a “student exercise” written when RVW was 21, the piece is full of good things and considerable interest. The liner notes wisely imply that the listener should not attempt to look in this piece for intimations of the composer’s future style and achievement. It is after all “merely” an exercise. The sound world is baroque, with Bach and Handel as possible exemplars. The Suite has four contrasting movements: Prelude, Minuet, Sarabande and Gigue.
Interestingly, Parry was not impressed with the Minuet: he wrote on the score, a little harshly, that RVW “must try harder”. The liner notes explain that RVW revised the Minuet to reflect the discussion. The duo have recorded this revision and promise to release the original later. I believe they should have squeezed it in here, for completeness…
No introduction is needed to Walton’s uplifting Crown Imperial March written during 1937 for that year’s Coronation of George VI. Except for Fašade, this piece has had more reworkings, arrangements and reductions than any other Walton work; the current edition of Stewart R. Craggs Source Book lists fourteen. The composer himself “dished up” the piano solo reduction in 1937. Some 12 years later Herbert Murrill made this version for piano duet, complete with optional cuts. Murrill had already made a splendid reduction of the March for organ in 1937. The Musical Times (January 1950, p. 31) notes that this “is a surprisingly easy arrangement of Walton's Crown Imperial for piano duet (one instrument) for which Herbert Murrill will no doubt earn the gratitude of young players and amateurs”. This version has quietly reintroduced several of the twiddly bits from the orchestral score. To be honest, it is nice to have a transcription of this popular march on disc, but it is not essential listening.
The playing is superb throughout. The booklet contains Charles Matthews and John Francis’s excellent notes. There are the usual bios of the two pianists. The front cover could have been a little more relevant to the main event, the Symphony.
This disc will strongly appeal to enthusiasts of William Walton and RVW. It will be an essential addition to their record libraries. How often the transcription of the full symphony will be played is another matter. Personally, my big discovery here is Vaughan Williams’s Suite. It may be pastiche, but it is enjoyable, sometimes moving, and always well written. It deserves an occasional outing in the recital room.