WILLIAM WALTON: Christopher Columbus – A Musical Journey; Hamlet and Ophelia – Poem for Orchestra – Julian & Jamie Glover, speakers/ BBC Nat. Chorus of Wales/ BBC Nat. Orchestra of Wales/ Richard Hickox – Chandos

by | Mar 22, 2006 | SACD & Other Hi-Res Reviews | 0 comments

WILLIAM WALTON:  Christopher Columbus – A Musical Journey; Hamlet and Ophelia – Poem for Orchestra – Julian & Jamie Glover, speakers/ 4 vocal soloists/additional speaker/ Craig Ogden, guitar/ BBC Nat. Chorus of Wales/ BBC Nat. Orchestra of Wales/ Richard Hickox – Chandos Multichannel SACD CHSA 5034, 71:15 *** 1/2:

This is the premiere recording of quite a production – one which its composer seemed to want to completely forget but which others have brought to life again.  This is a concert performance of the scenario based on a 1942 (1492 – get it?) “Play for Broadcasting” which Walton was commissioned by the BBC to compose. The author of the play was Louis MacNeice and it celebrated Columbus’ discovery of the Americas 450 years earlier. Walton wrote over an hour of music which was conducted by none other than Sir Adrian Boult.  When asked in 1966 if any of the work was suitable for publication Walton called it “that vast and boring score.”  Well, it’s certainly vast, but I found portions of it not at all boring. After all, Lady Walton – not maintaining marital unanimity – called it “a riveting work.” The disc comes with an 88-page illustrated booklet containing the entire libretto in English, French and German.

Surround sound is ideally suited to both the variety of speakers and other performers involved in this work as well as the vastness of Columbus’ whole enterprise. There are three speakers: Actor Julian Glover (Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Harry Potter) is the voice of Columbus and his son Jamie voices both a Herald and something called “Ironic Spirit.” A third speaker handles Sailor and “Voice.”  A good part of the opening section devotes itself to the major struggle Columbus had to go thru to get financial backing from the Spanish Crown for the attempt to reach the New World. The parting from his lady Beatriz suggests their relationship was not on the best of terms. When he finally secured the support and ships, it becomes evident that most of the Spanish never expected to see him again. The voyage is depicted poetically and makes a point of the last-minute sighting of land on the last of the five days Columbus had asked of the crews – saying he would return then if they found nothing.  The chorus of the Indians singing about the “white gods” struck me as rather sophomoric, and I had to smile broadly at the stirring orchestral/choral buildup when the men’s chorus – representing the sailors – repeatedly chants: “We have returned! And here we are!”

That’s not to say there isn’t some striking music in the Columbus production. Some of it may remind Waltonites and movie score fans of his work to come in Henry V, and a few of the more dynamic choral sections reminded me particularly of Walton’s popular oratorio Belshazzar’s Feast.  Besides the aforementioned music for his return to Spain, highlights in the score are the royal procession thru Granada after the victory against the Moors (with their banishment from the Iberian peninsula), and the music accompanying the sailing of his three ships. An a capella soprano sings the beautiful short song about the departure of “three lonely ships…and we will see them nevermore.”

The 12-minute instrumental work Hamlet and Ophelia was an arrangement by Muir Mathieson of Walton’s music for the classic Sir Lawrence Olivier film Hamlet. Both works fill in some interesting portions of Walton’s opera, although I doubt they will be re-listened to in my player nearly as frequently as his stirring First Symphony or Belshazzar.

– John Sunier

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