These two sets have in common the first symphony (1931-5), which I discussed
in detail last month, and the cello concerto.
The Gibson performance of the first symphony was the first to be released
on CD, and grateful we were in spite of reservations about the rather lightweight
performance and the rather scrawny CD transfer. I do not have that original
transfer for comparison so can only comment that the sound is now quite
presentable - and that, I suppose, is what one can say about the performance.
It is only in comparison with greater performances that one realises what
is missing. My problem here is that my first recommendation for this symphony
(Previn 1967) is currently unavailable but I think you would do well to wait
for a re-release; it has been popping in and out of the catalogue for years.
The Haitink performance is staggering and a refreshing eye-opener to the
hidden contents of this score but it is so different that I feel it should
not be your sole choice of performance.
The cello concerto (1955 rev 1974) is a work of autumnal, lyrical beauty
with the cello phrasing seamlessly over the orchestra - but the work must
not be allowed to drag. The comparative timings here are Tortelier (EMI)
26.50 and Kirshbaum (Chandos) 32.57 - an incredible difference. Gibson is
not just slow but occasionally almost comes to a standstill (try 6'45" in
track 1). Kirshbaum does not flow at these speeds. His phrasing is awkward,
angular (spiky even), unidiomatic and unsympathetic and all this impedes
the flow. Lyn Harrell and Rattle (EMI) do show that the concerto can work
at this sort of speed in the coupling with the first symphony discussed last
month (but at full price). Tortelier's performance has been previously available
on an EMI Studio recording coupled with the first cello concerto. In this
re-issue it comes up even fresher with the remastering and is infinitely
the preferable of the two recordings under review.
So having discounted the Chandos symphony and concerto is there anything
left to recommend? Well yes there is because there is an excellent account
of Belshazzar's Feast (1930) with Sherill Milnes. Because my eyes are
not what they were I at first thought I was going to hear the 1990 Willcocks
Chandos recording with Benjamin Luxon because there are some Willcocks
performances on this disc. This is a much earlier recording originally issued
by RCA in 1977, which suffered at the time by being released in the same
month as the highly regarded Solti performance for Decca. Apart from slight
tape hiss this is a spectacular recording and there is particularly clear
enunciation from the Royal Scottish National Chorus and from Sherill Milnes.
Even so, there is an even better version available from André
Previn on the mid-price EMI British Composers
The other works on this disc are just make-weights.
The EMI set is a much more sensible option (and cheaper) containing two concertos
(violin and cello) and both symphonies with Portsmouth Point and Scapino
as superb bonuses. Furthermore EMI make it clear which tracks are DDD or
ADD; it is not possible to tell this with the Chandos issue.
I had not heard Previn's performance of the second symphony ( (1957-60) before,
having lived with recordings by Szell (now re-issued on Sony) and Thomson
(Chandos) - and there's a contrast! The performance from Szell is fiery and
dramatic but even the transfer to CD has not been able to tame the original,
fizzy, Columbia Epic recording. Previn is a similar fast, jazzy interpretation
with a smooth recording that I can certainly make a first recommendation
for this work. I would urge anyone who thinks of this symphony as being inferior
to the first to give it another try. I am sure Previn's infectious whooping
horns in the first movement will win you over and just hear Walton having
a laugh at himself in the opening of the last movement.
I don't know how Ida Haendel's reputation has fared abroad but she has always
been highly regarded in the UK. Hers is a languid, warm reading of the violin
concerto ((1938 rev 1943) (previously memorably issued in coupling with the
Britten Violin Concerto). The recording is a little close so that the odd
intake of breath is noticeable.
Whichever way you look at it the Chandos two-fer is very much an also-ran
whereas the EMI 2CD set is a superb presentation, with ideal couplings,
and carrying an interpretation of the First symphony to set you
totally reconsidering this work.