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WILLIAM WALTON Symphony  no 1 a comparative review: Previn, Haitink, Rattle, Gibson


Walton's first symphony did not exactly explode onto the musical scene; he was a very slow worker. Whilst living with the Sitwells he had come to notice with Façade (1923), followed by the resounding successes of the Viola Concerto (1928) and Belshazzar's Feast (1931). Façade and Belshazzar's Feast had demonstrated his ability to compose with great rhythmic drive and an element of barbarity. These were to emerge in the first symphony  - but only after much labour. He struggled over it for three years with the first performance comprising only the first three movements because he was unable to complete the finale, even though the ending of the work was the first part to be composed; the third movement was the first to be completed. As only the first and third movements had been completed he missed the planned première with Sir Hamilton Harty  who had wanted to perform it in March 1934 to complete his first season with the LSO. Harty re-scheduled it for December 1934 but the finale was still incomplete so Walton agreed to allow it to go ahead  as it stood - to great acclaim - but this has allowed the suspicion that the last movement was a pale after-thought, which is most definitely not the case.. The beginning and the coda of the Finale were ready but he seemed unable to string them together. It was at this time that he was abandoned by Imma von Doernberg leaving him in an emotional turmoil hardly conducive to symphonic problem solving, which then resolved itself through the special relationship he developed with Alice Wimborne who inspired him to complete the work, and a suggestion from Constant Lambert that the way out of his impasse was to use a fugue to join the two sections together.

The symphony may not have exploded onto the musical scene but André Previn's 1967 recording most certainly did. There were no other recordings currently available at the time although Sargent's recording appears to have been released in the same month. Recordings have come and gone but Previn's has always been highly rated and has usually been selected as first choice. My copy of the CD gives no recording details although I have always understood it was recorded in the UK by Decca engineers. I did not hear the Sargent recording until its re-release on Concert Classics and was struck by a very different viewpoint to Previn's, now reinforced by the first CD issue of Haitink's recording from 1982. This was an EMI digital recording which had only a short life on LP. I bought the chrome cassette at that time and have waited with ever greater impatience for a CD issue to appear. It is very similar in concept to Sargent concentrating on the dark underside of this score in contrast to the brilliance that Previn finds. It is a measure of the greatness of this symphony that it can withstand such diametrically opposed readings. The first CD issue of this symphony came from Gibson with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra on Chandos, although this became superceded by Thomson from the same stable. The original CD issue was not a good transfer. Like the Haitink, the Gibson has now been reissued as a TWOfer CD set.  My final comparison will be with the Rattle recording. I heard Rattle give a blistering performance live and I taped a broadcast that was similarly spectacular, but had to wait some considerable time for  EMI to record it. This is not a Symphony Hall recording but the CBSO's earlier venue at the Warwick Arts Centre, Warwick University.

Previn's performance is renowned for its breathtaking speed. After an initial timpani-roll and held notes on horns the first movement is marked by a repeated rhythmic figure that occurs throughout most of the movement.

The cellos then introduce a five note motif that recurs throughout the movement. The performances can be immediately divided at this point. Previn almost skips away on this figure although the rhythm is very precise, rather like a gallop. Rattle is almost identical to Previn but Gibson is, unbelievably, even faster than Previn and loses the sharp delineation of the rhythmic pattern. Haitink is markedly slower which has the effect not of skipping but of a determined, dogged limp. I do not mean this in any derogatory sense as it is very effective and serves as a marker for the very different performance we are to hear. Haitink's performance is altogether slower than Previn's but this does not lead to any loss of tension; it increases in concentration as the darker undercurrents are revealed. There is pain in this symphony, of which I was totally unaware until I heard the Haitink performance; probably reflecting Walton's unrequited love affair. There are two ways of looking at this symphony just as there are with those of Malcolm Arnold. The oboe solo has a sense of desolation and resignation rather than brilliance. As the movement proceeds the motifs circle through the woodwind, brass and strings like a huge flywheel building a massive structure culminating in the original five note cello motif resounding in the brass. Where  Previn sounds exultant at this point Haitink sounds more like an unstoppable Leviathan.

After this great climax the mood relaxes with solo oboe [figure19 meno mosso]. With Previn this is a rather romantic interlude with this section of the score lasting 50 seconds [Rattle 51, Gibson a fast 40]. Haitink sees this differently - painfull, unrequited, poignant - taking 1'07". The only reading that does not sound valid is Gibson's.

The movement ends with a continuous terracing of ostinati leading to a huge climax (although no tam-tam or cymbals).With Previn it is like a huge incandescent pyrotechnic display producing a feeling of wonderment and exhilaration and that it would not be possible to pile on any more tension. Haitink, as might be expected by now, is steadier but immensely powerful leaving us absolutely drained rather than exhilarated, as with many a Shostakovich climax.

The scherzo is marked Presto, con malizia (very fast, with malice); has this marking ever been used by any other composer and what does it mean? Music can certainly convey happiness, fun (Haydn can make me chuckle), sadness, tenderness, love, sorrow, anger; it can be frightening (first movement of Mahler 9) or excoriating (many a Shostakovich extended climax) but can it be malicious? (Strauss in the critics section of Ein Heldenleben perhaps?) My interpretation of this marking is that it is the orchestra who should be feeling malicious having fought their way through a powerful, dramatic first movement to find no reprieve in the next, which is very fast and rhythmically intricate. So I look for an incandescent anger in their playing. I really only find this with the Previn performance that rips through this movement with fury in a minute less than the other performers. In summary:- Previn: fleet and feisty; - a knockout; Rattle: fast, lithe but cool - no anger there; Gibson: rather woolly; Haitink: much steadier but totally dramatic - a threatening anger. Flipping between the versions it has always been Haitink who led me on way past the point where I intended to switch discs.

The slow movement is a wonderful achievement. Romantic in the grand sense - a voluptuous love story but with a poignant yearning that perhaps informs us of an unrequited love. With Previn the analogue tape hiss is most obvious in this movement. The timings vary from Gibson 10:10, Previn 11:19, Rattle 11:15 to Haitink 14:09. These seem vastly different to the eye but not to the ear. The Gibson does not sound too fast and is as successful as Previn or Rattle in unfolding this sublimely beautiful music. It is only in juxtaposition that differences are noted with Previn able to constantly urge across the bar lines to provide an underlying restlessness in line with the rest of the symphony. Haitink, however, is true to his conception of this symphony and brings out not just the beauty but also sadness, or perhaps regret, sounding almost Elgarian at times. Again I find his performance most revealing and refreshing.

The finale opens with dramatic statements - slow and stately. I feel Gibson takes these a touch too fast. Rattle is again robbed of impact by his recording, Previn makes a bold statement and Haitink underlines his by being more deliberate with marked punctuation from the timpanist. Walton then launches into a rapid-fire string section against brass interjections. Previn here uses his understanding of jazz inflections in finding just the right jaunty rhythmn, as does Rattle. Gibson shows less flexibility and I get a feeling of apprehensiveness from the strings although the brass are most forceful - and forceful is the correct term for Haitink's approach to the central fugue! It has to be admitted that the strings of the RSNO are shown up by those of the LSO, CBSO and Philharmonia. The final climax is preceded by the Last Post on trumpet and then, for the first time, Walton uses cymbals and tam-tam. In Previn's analogue recording these are slightly obscured and are much clearer in the Rattle performance, although he indulges in a little agogic distortion in the Sibelian chords that close the symphony. To really hear their impact you have to turn to the earlier EMI recording for Haitink whose slightly slower approach allows each stroke of the tam-tam to swell most convincingly

The different approaches of Haitink and Previn have validity and both are immensely satisfying. The Gibson performance is very much the also-ran here. I had high expectations of Rattle from hearing him live but this is not fulfilled on this recording. I can hear what I am looking for, a very similar performance to Previn's, but I get nothing out of it; and this is due to the recording. I have seen the technical aspects of this recording praised and the disc highly recommended because of the coupling. There is no immediacy to the recording even though the dynamic range is wider than any of the others. The symphony opens at a low level, is recessed and fails to catch fire. I have exactly the same response to some other EMI Rattle recordings e.g Shostakovich 4th symphony where the live experience is not captured. With that recording I assumed it was a problem of inexperience recording in Symphony Hall but this was the Butterworth Hall at Warwick University where the engineers had plenty of experience. The Haitink is a perfectly balanced recording with every strand made clear but without the orchestra crowding the sound picture. The Previn recording is in much older, analogue sound with a touch of tape hiss. It is a close recording which gives it tremendous impact but a loss of subtlety. This is immediately obvious in the opening timpani rolls which are much closer than any other recording. But the full vigour and excitement come over with satisfying impact.

Purely on the basis of performance and recording I would choose Haitink and Previn as two valid, satisfying, alternative versions of this major work. The Haitink is well coupled and contains both symphonies, unlike the Chandos two-fer. I think I was very fortunate in hearing the second symphony before the first (by several years) so have never had the feeling that it was in any way inferior - and the conductor of the second symphony is Previn so you can end up with him in both symphonies for very reasonable outlay.


Len Mullenger

WILLIAM WALTON Symphony  no 1  VAUGHAN WILLIAMS The Wasps: Overture London Symphony Orchestra conducted by André Previn  RCA GD87830 lower mid-price

NOTE: As the site went live I learned that this disc has been deleted. Look out for the re-issue!

WILLIAM WALTON Symphony  no 1 [DDD]  (a) Symphony No 2 (c) Cello Concerto (b)  violin Concerto (d) Portsmouth Point (c) Scapino (c) Paul Tortelier (b), Ida Haendel (d), Philharmonia Orchestra (a), Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra (b & d), London Symphony Orchestra (c) conducted by Bernard Haitink (a), Paavo Berglund (b & d), André Previn (c)  2CD EMI double fforte CZS5 733712 two for the price of one

WILLIAM WALTON Symphony  no 1  Cello Concerto Lyn Harrell, CBSO Simon Rattle  EMI CDC7 54572 2 Full price

WILLIAM WALTON Symphony  no 1 (a) Cello Concerto (a) Belshazzar's Feast (a & b), Coronation Te Deum (a & c) Coronation March: Crown Imperial (d) Anniversary Fanfare (d) Coronation March: Orb and Sceptre (d)   Royal Scottish National Orchestra Chorus (b & c) Scottish Festival Brass bands (c) Royal Scottish National Orchestra (a & d) Philharmonia Orchestra (d) conducted by Alexander Gibson (a) David Willcocks (d) CHANDOS 2for1 CHAN 241-10

Selected Discography

Philharmonia Walton HMV ALP 1027 2/53 EMI CHS5 65003 2 11/94
LPO Boult  Pye Golden Guinea GSGC 14008 1/58 7/64
LSO Previn RCA SB6691 1/67 GL42707 1/79 GD87830 2/89
New Philharmonia Sargent HMV ASD2299 1/67 Concert Classics SXLP30138 4/72 CDM7 63692 2
RLPO Handley PRT/ASV K 53557 11/78 ACM 2006 CDQ 6093 1/94
Philharmonia Haitink HMV ASD4091 4/82 EMI double fforte CZS5 733712  5/99
SNO Gibson Chandos ABRD1095 7/84 CHAN 8313 CHAN 6570 5/94 CHAN 241-10 4/94
RPO Previn Telarc CD80125 8/87
LPO Slatkin Virgin VC7 90715 2 8/88 CUV5 61146 2
Bournemouth SO Handley EMI CDC7 49671 2 8/89
LPO Mackerras EMI CDEMX 2151 12/89
LPO Thomson Chandos CHAN 8862 7/91
CBSO Rattle EMI CDC7 54572 2 12/92
RPO Ashkenazy Decca 433 703 2 4/93
LSO Harty CDAX 8003 12/93
Bornemouth SO Litton 4143450 2 10/95

A listing does not denote availablility


Len Mullenger

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