WALTON Symphony No 2. Cello Concerto
Edward Gardner directs a superbly perceptive account of Walton’s Second Symphony, exhilarating in its purposeful thrust yet never flinching from this music’s formidable nervous energy and edgy, at times desperate undertow; I don’t think I’ve ever been made more aware of the manic glee with which we are hurtled into the first-movement coda (beam to 7'22") – or, for that matter, the whiff of sulphur left behind by its wry pay-off. Not only is Gardner fully alive to the finale’s extraordinary variety of mood and myriad imaginative touches, he’s especially appreciative of the piercing, melancholy sense of isolation and snarling menace that stalk the slow movement; how fastidiously he attends to Walton’s diaphanous textures and how tenderly he shapes the sinuous melodic lines. Make no mistake: with cracking playing from the BBC SO, Gardner’s is a conspicuously insightful reading of this underrated score – arguably the most gripping to have come my way since Szell (9/62), Previn (5/74) and Mackerras (12/89).
The programme commences with the Improvisations on an Impromptu of Benjamin Britten. Premiered by Josef Krips and the San Francisco Symphony in January 1970, it’s a typically resourceful and hugely pleasing set of variations on the theme from the slow movement of Britten’s Piano Concerto and receives a watchful, lucid and affectionate outing. So, too, does the Cello Concerto, which finds soloist Paul Watkins at his customarily assured, urgently expressive and irreproachably sensitive best. There’s a lot to like in this classy collaboration, especially the flashing brilliance and swagger of the scherzo and a pungently characterful, excitingly cogent finale; certainly, the big-hearted Watkins earns a place alongside the likes of Li-Wei Qin and Christian Poltéra (ABC Classics and BIS, 1/15) towards the front of a hotly competitive field. Full-blooded, expansive and judiciously balanced SACD sound; a gem of a disc.