WALTON Symphony No 1. Violin Concerto
Edward Gardner presides over blisteringly eloquent and splendidly unbuttoned accounts of both these Walton masterworks, the First Symphony’s vehement opening Allegro assai in particular unfolding with a bite, purpose and snarling intensity to match any rival. (I was even put in mind of the composer’s own dynamic, superbly paced interpretation with the Philharmonia from the early 1950s – and that’s saying something.) Gardner has a sharp ear and directs with an unwavering sense of the long line. What’s more, the BBC Symphony Orchestra are with him every step of the way, their strings especially extracting every ounce of expressive clout from Walton’s irresistibly sinewy counterpoint: I love the feisty rhythmic snap of the cellos from fig 7 or 1'46" during the first movement’s exposition; and, a little later on between 10 and 11 (2'30" and 2'44"), listen to those irresistibly full-throated violas and cellos really digging into their parts.
The scherzo (marked Presto con malizia) fairly rattles along at a daredevil pace that recalls Leonard Slatkin’s underrated LPO account (Virgin, 8/88 – nla) – and even has a welcome dash or two of extra venom to match. On balance, André Previn and the LSO remain unsurpassed here, though few could surely resist the brazen swagger on show in the closing stages (listen out for some truly roistering horn trills). Absolutely no complaints, either, with the anguished slow movement, where the orchestral playing is as smoulderingly passionate as one could desire. Time to heap praise upon the BBC SO’s woodwind principals: in its plaintive beauty the opening flute solo surely comes close to the ideal, and I guarantee it will be many a moon before you hear more sweetly expressive work from both clarinet and oboe in the pages that follow. Searingly intense, songful work, too, from the violas and cellos and then first violins when they take up the clarinet’s achingly beautiful secondary melody (precisely appassionato vibrato espressivo as marked). What a devastatingly personal, superbly concise essay this is: Walton at the very peak of his powers.
As is well known by now, the symphony’s finale caused the composer no end of grief, so much so that the work’s long-awaited world premiere in November 1934 by the LSO under the baton of Sir Hamilton Harty comprised merely the first three movements. By August of the following year, however, the finale was ready; on November 6, 1935, Harty and the BBC SO scored a triumph with the completed symphony at London’s Queen’s Hall (and, on December 9 10, 1935, the conductor took it into the recording studio, this time again with the LSO). The finale’s altogether more extrovert, crowd-pleasing demeanour continues to prove a stumbling block for some commentators, who find Walton’s sanguine inspiration worryingly incompatible with and/or failing to measure up to the exalted benchmark of what has gone before (in the Maestoso outer portions there are unmistakable echoes of his film music and ceremonial offerings to come). Refreshingly, Gardner approaches the movement with no such lingering hang-ups. Indeed, his formidably athletic conception dazzles and can boast a clinching symphonic reach reminiscent of, say, Harty’s legendary pioneering recording or Vernon Handley’s outstandingly cogent Bournemouth SO version (EMI, 8/89 – nla). Just listen to the way he drives home the towering climax at fig 137 or 8'23" – thrilling – and what reserves of tender eloquence he finds in the principal trumpet’s valedictory, ineffably moving ‘last post’ prior to the grandiloquent coda (one of those ‘special’ Walton moments).
Make no mistake, then, this exceptionally vital newcomer occupies a lofty position within this symphony’s distinguished discography, and it’s followed by a comparably involving rendering of the ripely romantic and dazzlingly virtuoso Violin Concerto that Walton fashioned in 1938 39 for the great Jascha Heifetz. Tasmin Little’s earlier Decca recording with Andrew Litton and the Bournemouth SO (10/95) had plenty going for it but this Chandos successor is, I think, even more rewarding. Not only do Gardner and the BBC SO provide the most insightful and charismatic support but Little’s playing combines fire, sensuality and alluring sweetness of tone (her instrument is a marvellous 1757 Guadagnini).
Little’s gorgeously fragrant delivery of the concerto’s luscious opening theme immediately tugs the emotions in a way that recalls both of Heifetz’s recordings (from 1941 and 1950 with Eugene Goossens and the composer respectively), while Gardner sees to it that the stunning orchestral paragraph from 7'47" flares up to magnificent effect. Elsewhere, the outer sections of the central Neapolitan scherzo have a truly memorable swagger and mischief about them (these performers’ teasingly capricious treatment of the winsome second subject will make you smile). How perceptively, too, Little and Gardner quarry those cherishably Elgarian undertones of the finale’s wistfully intimate accompanied cadenza. Joyously skipping piccolos and clarinets usher in the exuberant Alla marcia coda to crown an abundantly communicative display that, quite simply, rekindled my love for what is a gloriously big-hearted, consummately crafted work.
Heaps to savour and cherish, in sum; certainly, seasoned Waltonians will have a ball. With magnificently truthful sound and judicious balance throughout, this terrific coupling should be snapped up without delay