WILLIAM WALTON: Symphonies Nos. 1 & 2; Siesta – BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra / Martyn Brabbins – Hyperion Records CDA67794, 78:05 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] ****:
Sir William Walton (1902-1984) was a North Country boy who became a chorister at Christ Church College, Oxford, and remained there from the age of ten, in the choir until his voice broke, thereafter as an undergraduate. This brought him opportunities for becoming upwardly socially mobile, as it brought him into contact with the wealthy and aristocratic Sitwells with whom he went to stay for some time, composing and meeting artists of all kinds, and learning from them. He worked assiduously and painstakingly at his writing, and had an early success with Facade in 1923, followed by several other works in the 1920s. By the time Belshazzar’s Feast was performed in 1931, he was a highly acclaimed composer.
Walton’s Symphony No. 1 had its beginnings in 1932 and, while not commissioned as such, it was Sir Hamilton Harty’s request which perhaps kick-started the composer to work on this traditionally constructed four movement work. Always a slow worker, Walton’s progress was curtailed completely in 1934 when his long love affair with Imma von Doernberg ended. So, rather unusually, the first performance included only the first three movements.
On this fine new recording from Hyperion, Martyn Brabbins and the BBC’s Scottish Symphony Orchestra provide the mysterious and febrile opening with all the atmosphere it needs to succeed, with taut rhythms, tight ensemble and warning snarling brass. While the upper strings are not as well-nourished as the London Symphony Orchestra’s for André Previn they give an appropriate sense of struggle. I would have liked a little more power in the i, but the malice is certainly well caught. The slow movement, Andante con malinconia, is very well portrayed – the depths of despair and depression almost tangible.
A year after the first three movements had been premièred, the first full performance took place in London with the BBC SO under Harty in December 1935. Walton had had a new partner the previous year, Viscountess Wimborne (1880-1948) and in the interim had also composed music for the film Escape Me Never while waiting for the inspiration to write a final movement worthy of the first three. Writer’s block or not, it was certainly well worth waiting for. A movement of enormous powerza and unleashing of emotions, it is excellently paced here by Brabbins and his team. Inspired by the model of Sibelius or not, depending on your view, this work has remained extremely popular and has travelled well outside Great Britain.
It was 25 years before Walton wrote his Second of only two symphonies. By then, the musical world, as well as the world in general, and his own lifestyle, had changed, and from being the composer most likely to become great, his star had waned. The arrival of a rather shorter Second Symphony with but three movements was greeted mutedly, and it is only in recent years the work has been appreciated more for the high quality of its writing. Martyn Brabbins seems to me to be entirely successful here. The first movement, really an amalgam of Allegro and Scherzo bounces with energy and the longish slow movement expertly paced. The final, third movement is a Passacaglia, Theme and Variations with fugato section before a coda for ending. Not only is this wonderful writing but Brabbins brings out the variety of humours emphasizing the high quality Walton’s music had reached in 1960. I think it is a triumph.
Siesta, written in 1926, serves as a sorbet between the two large courses, and doesn’t sound as lazy and hazy as it might – for that I will return to the late and much-missed Sir Charles Mackerras on EMI who had exactly the same generous and rare coupling of these works about twenty years ago. The Second’s recording compares well with George Szell’s pioneering one, and with Previn’s well-recorded EMI release. The First is up against a blistering Previn on RCA (please reissue on SACD!) and excellent accounts by Sargent, Boult (wonderful in its First Hand incarnation), Thomson, Sir Colin Davis (an LSO Live SACD) and Slatkin. I was very impressed by Sir Colin’s in particular, a mature reading of enormous depth of vision. A single SACD coupling of the two symphonies exists on BIS – Owain Arwel Hughes does some good things, especially in the Second, but the First Symphony in particular comes over as too soft-centered for my taste.
Hyperion’s release is a standard CD, but the recording sounds as though it has potential to be state-of-the-art SACD. However, the sound quality is excellent and should give much pleasure to all but the most demanding audiophile. There is depth to the sound-stage, which I found to the recording’s advantage, but some may find some sections not as powerfully present as they would like. The natural balance appealed to me; recorded in Glasgow by Simon Eadon the sound is up to Hyperion’s best orchestral recordings. The booklet has a superb essay by Michael Kennedy. A very warm welcome then for this coupling.
— Peter Joelson