Walton Symphony No 1; Cello Concerto

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Walton Symphony No 1; Cello Concerto

  • Concerto for Cello and Orchestra
  • Symphony No. 1
  • Scapino
  • Concerto for Violin and Orchestra
  • Symphony No. 2

Ever since he made his first appearances in this country, from winning the BBC Rupert Foundation Competition in 1982, Andrew Litton has shown his natural affinity with British music. In these three superb discs, brilliantly recorded, he brings out how the music of Walton is central to that love, very much as it is with Andre Previn. It is Previn's example in his vintage recordings with the LSO that I have kept being reminded of, hearing these three discs and comparing them with many fine issues of the same works.
More than anyone since Previn, I feel, Litton thrillingly conveys the element of wildness in Walton's finest inspirations, notably in the works of the pre-war period. It is partly a question of his treatment of the jazzy syncopations which are such a vital element in Walton. Litton is not alone in treating them with a degree of idiomatic freedom – the composer himself as interpreter set the pattern – but as with Previn Litton's affinity with the jazz element comes from inside, clearly reflecting his American background. Consistently he makes the music crackle with high voltage electricity, and again he echoes Previn in the way he can screw tension up to the limit and beyond, resolving grinding dissonances on heart-warming concords.
That is particularly important in the First Symphony, and there one of my principal comparisons has – for practical reasons – been with Simon Rattle and the City of Birmingham Symphony when both discs couple that work with the Cello Concerto. The Rattle version of the First Symphony is superb, but next to Litton's it seems almost too safe, too closely controlled, lacking the extremes of tension, the wildness which keeps making me liken Litton's reading to Previn's vintage one with the LSO. Litton even surpasses Previn in the climactic resolution of the finale. With him this movement in no way seems a let-down after the rest, as it easily can – reflecting the composer's problems over completing it. The climactic resolution on an outburst from multiple timpani and percussion is more shattering than I have ever known it on disc (track 7, 8'40''), with the Decca recording team achieving wonders in the weight and brilliance of the sound.
That climax makes me wonder whether that is the reason the general transfer level is a degree lower than in most rival versions. In the Cello Concerto too the sound is a degree less immediate than in Rattle's version with Lynn Harrell, and that matches a broad contrast of interpretation. Where Harrell remains unrivalled in power and tonal resonance, Robert Cohen for Litton follows a deeper, more hushed, more meditative approach, even when as in the first movement he has a more flowing speed. Harrell is the more powerful, Cohen the more mercurial as well as the more tender. The way that Cohen makes the opening notes of the slow finale seem to emerge from afar is magical.
In all three discs the exceptionally full and vivid recording brings out the opulence as well as the sensuousness of Walton's orchestration, regularly enhancing Litton's expressive warmth as a Waltonian in the great romantic melodies. Not only that, the bitingly dramatic contrasts of brass and percussion have never been more vivid, with the Bournemouth orchestra playing magnificently, not just with brilliance but with passionate commitment. On the second disc the Symphony No. 2 is given an even sharper focus than in Ashkenazy's Decca version with the RPO. On the disc it follows – as in a concert – the Scapino overture and the Violin Concerto. Tasmin Little as soloist gives the most tenderly beautiful performance, matching Litton in her control of Waltonian contrasts between tender lyricism and sparkling wit. Like Litton, too, Little is able to hold full tension through pauses, often daringly extending them as in a live performance, so that the cadenzas in the first and last movements have a rare intensity. This is a work which has inspired many outstanding performances, not least from women violinists, and Little in spontaneity and tenderness is unsurpassed.
Where the first two discs were recorded in the helpful acoustic of the Southampton Guildhall, Belshazzar's Feast was put into the grander setting of Winchester Cathedral. The problems for the engineers must have been daunting, for the reverberation time is formidably long, yet thanks to brilliant balancing there is ample detail and fine focus in exceptionally incisive choral and orchestral sound. The great benefit is that this emerges as a performance on a bigger scale than its rivals, with the contrasts between full chorus and semi-chorus the more sharply established. The vividly dramatic soloist is Bryn Terfel, pointing the words as no one else ever has in my experience. He was magnetic enough in his 1994 Last Night of the Proms performance with Andrew Davis (issued on Teldec, 2/95), but his expressive colourings are even more individual here, both in the ''shopping-list'' – Babylon was a great city – and in his spine-chilling narration describing the writing on the wall.
The others items on the third disc, the Henry V suite and Crown Imperial, were recorded like Belshazzar in Winchester Cathedral, and I am sorry the opportunity was not taken of using a chorus in Henry V. But the fanfares have never been more evocative, and the build-up of the Agincourt charge is thrilling. In Crown Imperial a cathedral acoustic does bring some lack of clarity, but it is a stirring performance. All these works are available in a formidable range of excellent rival versions, but thanks not only to Litton's electric conducting but to the spectacular sound none is more recommendable than these. Andrew Litton's years as Principal Conductor of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra could hardly have had a richer culmination on disc. R1 '9510056'

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