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Sir William Walton (1902-1983)
Concerto for Violin and Orchestra
Symphony No 2
Zino Francescatti (violin)
Philadelphia Orchestra/Eugene Ormandy (concerto)
Cleveland Orchestra/George Szell (symphony)
rec. 14 March 1959 Broadwood Hotel, Philadelphia; 24 February 1961, Severance Hall, Cleveland
Transfer source for this not supplied
Auditioned as 24/192 FLAC digital download

The third and final HDTT collection that I chose to revisit features one performance which is a genuine classic of the LP era. Released sixty years ago, George Szell’s premiere recording of the Symphony No 2 by William Walton remains the benchmark against which any new performance must be measured. Walton was famously astounded by the collective virtuosity of the Cleveland Orchestra under Szell and even in our current age of orchestral brilliance the sheer incisiveness and character of the Clevelanders is staggering. Slightly disappointingly this HDTT release does not include the two other Walton performances – equally sensational – recorded by the same forces; The Partita (written by Walton for the orchestra) and the Variations on a theme by Hindemith. Instead the coupling is another very fine recording from the old CBS vaults – this time featuring their other staple orchestra/conductor combination – The Philadelphia with Eugene Ormandy here accompanying Zino Francescatti in the Violin Concerto. The easy narrative is to say Ormandy was too often ‘just’ a safe pair of hand at the helm of a great orchestra. This recording proves that to be a glib generalisation – he really nails the curious mix of languid tension and jittery rhythm that characterises Walton’s writing. Likewise Francescatti plays with the laser precision and tight focussed sound that suits this work perfectly. Heifetz was the famous dedicatee and first recorded performer of the work but this recording is very fine too. If not forgotten by violin enthusiasts, Francescatti’s name is hardly familiar today which is a shame – he was another stalwart of the CBS label for whom he recorded most of the core repertoire as well as more unusual/new works such as Bernstein’s Serenade.

Memories of my LP encounters with these performances were that sonically they were compromised by the poor quality of the vinyl and pressings sold in the UK in the mid 1970’s. The HDTT release does not detail the source they have used for this transfer. Over the years the symphony recording in particular has been re-released in various guises including as part of the massive 106 disc Szell retrospective. I think that version was remastered for that set but the only CD versions I know are relatively early CD versions that one can imagine benefitting from a sympathetic remastering. However they again have the advantage of being cheaper and including the other two definitive Walton/Szell performances. So here, direct comparison does slightly favour the HDTT transfer. In the symphony the sound is warmer and fuller with the CD transfer just a tad flatter and ‘papery’. The violin concerto is closer and generally very impressive in both versions. The sign of a good recording is when you stop listening to the illusion that in essence any recording is and instead focus on the performance. I must admit to not having returned to the Francescatti version in some years and it was a delight to reacquaint myself with it. The soloist/orchestra balance is extremely well handled and Ormandy understands Walton’s slightly elusive style extremely well. The only other Walton I know from Ormandy is a good but not exceptional Belshazzar – this violin concerto makes you wish that both conductors here had recorded more of this composer.

Nick Barnard

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