WALTON Symphonies Nos 1 & 2 (Karabits)
If memory serves, Martyn Brabbins was the last to pair both these masterworks on a single disc (with the BBC Scottish SO on Hyperion, 10/11), since when we’ve also been treated to Edward Gardner’s blistering versions with the BBC SO as part of his Walton series for Chandos (7/14 and 5/15). What’s more, loyal supporters of the Bournemouth SO will need no reminding of the excellence of Andrew Litton’s accounts (10/95, now handily available on a generously stuffed Decca twofer with the three Walton concertos).
It’s the First Symphony which comes off by far the better on this new Onyx coupling. Kirill Karabits keeps a steady hand on the structural tiller, elicits an impressively secure orchestral response and excavates plenty of ear-pricking detail: in the relentless opening Allegro assai, for example, how good it is to hear the strings’ syncopated ostinatos cut through the furious welter of activity (listen from 11'11" – or fig 36 – to hear what I mean). For all Karabits’s shrewdly chosen tempos and the infectious spirit on display, however, there isn’t quite the visceral impact or animal excitement generated by the composer himself in his early 1950s recording with the Philharmonia (2/53) or André Previn in his classic 1966 LSO version (the latter’s truly Presto con malizia Scherzo remains unsurpassed); the slow movement, too, emerges just a little coolly by the side of Gardner’s (his BBC SO wind principals are more piercingly expressive than their Bournemouth counterparts). Still, Karabits’s remains a most enjoyable performance, its defiantly musical, unflashy manners reminding me of Vernon Handley’s underrated 1988 account with this same orchestra (8/89 – nla).
Unfortunately, I’m altogether less happy with Karabits’s reading of the Second Symphony, where clarity of articulation and texture is achieved at the expense of thrusting momentum, nervous intensity and smouldering passion. Granted, the actual playing is pleasingly polished, but at the same time there’s a perplexing want of intrepid flair and freewheeling spontaneity (the highly strung first movement in particular sounds disconcertingly sedate). In other words, Walton’s inspiration fails to take wing the way it so conspicuously does on George Szell’s electrifying premiere recording in Cleveland (9/62), to say nothing of Previn (5/74) and Mackerras (12/89).
Production values throughout are first-class; and Daniel Jaffé supplies a succinct and knowledgeable annotation. Final verdict: best, I think, to sample before you buy.