This is, without doubt, the finest performance of
Walton's Symphony No 1 and it highlights the brilliance not only
of the orchestra and the recording but one of that rare breed of musicians,
the truly great conductor.
For those of us who were privileged to know 'Jack'
Thomson and attend his rehearsals and concerts we can testify that his
concern was to perform music as the composer had written it. He would
divide his 'spare time' between the golf course and reading and re-reading
scores even those he knew well. His aim was to show detail and to bring
out all that was in the score; he agonised over correct tempi
believing it to be one of the essentials to getting a score right. Clarity
and texture were vital to his readings. Although he had a reputation
for being peppery this was due to his quest for perfection. He was simply
superb with soloists who often asked his help in a difficult passage
and, every time, Jack had the answer immediately. He worked on many
exacting scores and premièred works that other conductors would
not touch giving various excuses, whereas the true reason was probably
that they were inadequate for the task.
The first movement is simply perfect. Everything is
in control; the tempi are always well-judged; the famous oboe tune is
expertly done as is the hollow bassoon commentary. The build-ups are
gradual, as Walton intended, and tremendously exciting. The crescendos
are magnificent and every detail is observed. When the timpani are pp,
they are. The performance is never 'over the top' but controlled. There
are no ugly caricatures as in the Haitink and Rattle versions. The string
playing after figure 18 is both sensuous and telling and
the easily-boring passage, figure 19 to figure 24
is expertly done as Thomson brings out detail and maintains interest.
The brass is exciting but never displayed as 'sore thumbs' but integrated
into the overall texture. The timpanists are excellent and the exultant
conclusion to this superb music is absolutely exhilarating and heroic.
Thomson's fastidious attention to detail is also shown
in the following presto. His performance is menacing.
He is the only conductor who manages to change from 3/4 to 5/4 and he
observes and demonstrates the talone marcatissimo at figure 51
and the martellato, two bars after 60. The scherzo of
Beethoven's Ninth is not far away and the finale of Shostakovitch's
Sixth is more than hinted at in a passage after 71.
The enviable control that Thomson has does not make the music mechanical;
it is always alive and vibrant.
The andante con malincolia has superb woodwind
solos without the appalling unauthorised rests and cutting the value
of minims as in Haitink's performance. The string tone is luscious and
everything blends. As with another great conductor, Fritz Reiner, Thomson
has an uncanny way of making the orchestra to be one unit, not four
families. He has a truly cantabile tone at figure 88.
The trombones con sordini, three bars before 92
are truly sinister. The violas at 94 are, as
Walton instructed, appassionato vibrato espressivo. The concluding
maestoso does not fall apart as with Haitink and Rattle's pitiful
performances but is given a logical reading where no continuity or momentum
The finale also begins maestoso and is robust,
as it should be. The brioso fulfils the composer's intentions,
the fugato is focosamente whereas I have not encountered
this detail before. Thomson captures the spritely bounce of the vivacissimo
and when the build-up begins a heightened expectancy results. The attack
of both timpanists in the final maestoso is electrifying. The
trumpet solo at 140 sounds a bit like The Last Post.
The final pages are triumphant.
Varii Capricci is Walton's last major orchestral
score combining Mediterranean and Latin American styles. Originally
it was a set of guitar pieces written for Julian Bream and entitled
Bagatelles. But the orchestral version is very colourful and
as well as the nervous energy we have some very beautiful melodies.