William WALTON: Symphony No. 1—Symphony No. 2. Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/Kirill Karabits, onyxclassics ONYX4168, 73:50, *****

Once in a while a reviewer hears a performance of familiar works that is so unique that it redefines the music. Kirill Karabits and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra has made a recording that expresses the passion and warmth of two of William Walton’s greatest works. And Onyx has provided sound with a level of detail that reveals in the glories of these works.

William Walton (1902-82) was a mid-20th century English composer who benefitted from fortunate early connections. His father was a choirmaster and the young William was a chorister at Christ Church in Oxford. He studied music Oxford University and befriended the Sitwells, an aristocratic family of writers. They provided him with cultural and financial resources that allowed him to compose. By 1929, his Viola Concerto and the oratorio Belshazzar’s Feast made him a composer of note.

But in 1929 Walton’s crisis in his personal life led to the composition of his greatest work, Symphony No. 1. He fell in love with Baroness Imma von Doemberg. The turmoil of that relationship spanned the years from 1932 to 1934, when it ended. The first three movements bear the imprint of that connection. A new relationship with Lady Alice Wimbourne influenced a very different mood in the final movement, completed in 1935. As a friend of Walton’s commented, “The trouble was that Willie changed girlfriends between movements.”

The quiet beginning and gradual building tension in the first movement sets the stage for an angry drama, yet the lyrical second theme expresses tenderness and love. The classic Previn recording of 1966 emphasizes the sharp attacks, while Karabits matches the drama, but the second theme relaxes, increasing the contrast. There is a mystery here that makes this movement take on a new dimension. The great climax toward the end of the movement builds slowly, making it almost unbearable. There is a longing in Karabits’ interpretation that is excruciating. The ‘Presto con malizia’ is acerbic, yet there is a vitality that belies the pressure the composer felt to complete the symphony while living through “the most idiotic mess I’ve made of my life.”

William Walton

The ‘Andante con malinconia’ is a sad lament on love lost. The flute weeps with tender memories while the brass and lower strings reflect the depth of pain. The march-like beginning of the final movement reflects Walton’s more optimistic new relationship with Lady Wimbourne.  A high-spirited fugue displays Walton’s superb orchestral powers. The spacious and detailed recording, Karabits’ passionate interpretation and the performance of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra make this a brilliant new recording of a 20th century masterpiece.

Walton’s Second Symphony (1957-60) was initially undervalued. Critics expected an atonal work and audiences were disappointed that the subtle score lacked the drama of his First Symphony. But in the late 20th century critics and audiences began to recognize its orchestral mastery and synthesis of a variety of influences (jazz, Sibelius, Stravinsky and Ravel). The lyrically tart, Stravinsky influenced first movement develops a subtle drama that the percussion (vibraphone, piano and celeste) amplify. Karabits adds a vitality and nervousness that drives the movement forward. The slow movement is a lyrical and rhapsodic nocturne with an underlying tension that makes it somewhat enigmatic. The last movement is a powerful Passacaglia that starts ominously and evolves into glittering orchestral variations, ending with a fugato that ironically transforms all twelve tones into a celebratory ending.

Karabits infuses a vitality into these British symphonies that is simply thrilling. I can’t remember a recording that is as expansive and detailed. Don’t miss this CD!!

—Robert Moon