Walton Choral & Orchestral Works

Author: 
Edward Greenfield

Walton Choral & Orchestral Works

  • Belshazzar's Feast
  • Henry V

This dazzling new version of a favourite oratorio from the world's foremost Walton interpreter could hardly provide a more brilliant start for the RPO's promotion of its own record label, a project unique among orchestras. The sessions, as recently as February this year, were out at watford Town Hall, not the easiest place for recording a big choral work, but with James Mallinson as producer—earlier responsible for the Solti version on Decca—the sound here is astonishingly vivid with the three trombones at the very start at once establishing a three-dimensional perspective in a believable acoustic. Realistically the chorus is set behind the orchestra, and particularly in the big celebratory numbers the positioning prevents it from sounding quite so large and all-embracing as the LSO Chorus do on the earlier Previn/HMV version, but that is one of surprisingly few points on which I now prefer what has long been a favourite record of mine. Even in that balancing the new recording has its spectacular justification in the extra clarity of the orchestral textures, particularly the percussion, with detail identifiable as never before and with plenty of space round the sound, choral as well as instrumental. I can predict that the final chorus of praise with its antiphonal ''Alleluias'' will quickly become a demonstration passage.
Interpretatively the broad difference between Previn in 1986 and Previn in 1972, is that this time the performance is tauter with speeds often more urgent and with discipline consistently crisper. The 1972 recording would have benefited from having three instead of two sessions (there were four for this RPO version to cover the coupling too), and I have been surprised to what a degree the new now rather shows up failings in the old. Previn still tends to have speeds a little slower than Walton in his 1960 version (HMV), and there are unique points to register in that indispensable recording with the young Philharmonia Chorus showing its paces, but the choral singing here too is white-hot, often even more bitingly intense than that of the Philharmonia.
The one reservation I have of any importance is over Benjamin Luxon as soloist. When the recording in all its complexity provides such a realistic sound image in front of you, it comes as quite a jolt to have the baritone stepping forward in front of everyone in too close a balance. That placing has the added disadvantage that his heavy vibrato, slower but less gritty than it was in his singing on the Solti version, is brought out the more. It remains a very musical as well as a dramatic performance, less choppy than with Solti, but John Shirley-Quirk has more subtlety and refinement as well as a firmer voice on the earlier Previn version.
The Henry V suite makes a generous and attractive coupling, and there, as you might expect of a conductor who was so successful a film-score composer, the control of tension and atmosphere are masterly, if anything even keener than Walton himself in his still superb version with the Philharmonia (HMV SXLP30139, 5/72). The recorded sound is again in the demonstration class with the brilliance of Walton's orchestration brought home all the more vividly. As for the RPO both in Henry V and Belshazzar, their playing is inspired, both more beautiful and more brilliant than I can remember on other recent records. Players working for their own label obviously have an extra incentive.'

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