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S & H Concert Review

William Walton: Suite, Henry V, Violin Concerto, Symphony No. 2 Philharmonia Orchestra, Richard Hickox, Joshua Bell, violin, Symphony Hall, Birmingham, 22nd March 2002 (CT)

At the first of two Symphony Hall concerts by the Philharmonia and Richard Hickox celebrating the Walton centenary (the second concert on the 26th featured a concert performance of Troilus and Cressida) the audience was disappointingly, and perhaps surprisingly sparse for a concert that offered much, both programmatically and, in the case of Joshua Bell, a high profile soloist. A case of overkill perhaps? Walton’s centenary has seen tremendous publicity with concerts mounted nationwide and major articles in every musical publication of note. Yet the opportunity to hear the Symphony No. 2 let alone Troilus and Cressida (for which I understand the audience was equally thin) outside London, is one that does not come along too often. Having just watched the newly released Decca DVD of Tony Palmer’s Walton documentary, At the Haunted End of the Day, in which the modest if not self-deprecating composer tells how he "sweated blood" on these works, I could not help but feel a pang of poignancy that more people had not seen fit to pay tribute to a man who remains one of our most important twentieth century musical figures.

Walton’s much loved film score for Henry V, skilfully adapted into the concert suite we know today in 1963 by Muir Matheson, makes a fine concert opener although it took the orchestra a little while to settle in before the ultimate standard was set for the night. The overture, The Globe Playhouse, got off to an atmospheric start, subsequently marred only by a slight lack of co-ordination from the timpani at the commencement of the central woodwind section. The Death of Falstaff was profoundly moving, the strings heavily sombre in tone and beautifully phrased, entirely typical of Hickox’s approach to this repertoire in fact. The Charge and Battle of Agincourt just failed to blaze as I would have liked and as a result the ensuing "Bolero" lost a degree of its poignancy although the strings in Touch Her Soft Lips and Part, as in Falstaff, were touchingly affectionate, showing themselves to be capable of impressive delicacy. In conclusion, Agincourt Song possessed the vigour and spirit that the foregoing battle scene had not quite generated, the closing bars as triumphant as one could wish for with the brass particularly resplendent.

In the past I have witnessed Joshua Bell’s band of teenage groupies (all female I would add) queue uncomfortably at the Proms for many hours in the rain and sitting on tarmac to be within touching distance of their idol at the very front of the arena. What is more astonishing is that I have then seen them disappear in the interval after their hero has performed without returning. I can only assume that this is not through intense disappointment with his performance either musical or otherwise! Fortunately, although Bell clearly had a number of enthusiastic admirers in Symphony Hall they were of more mature years and chose very wisely to return for the second half. The singing purity of Bell’s tone was evident in the very opening bars, that glorious Mediterranean sun drenched melody sounding as magical as ever, although I missed a little of the feeling of languid breeze from the orchestra. It soon became apparent that Bell knew exactly where he was going with the music, his playing displaying presence, atmosphere and emotional intensity in equal quantities. The orchestra too were responding with sensitive accompaniment whilst Hickox’s skilful direction was acutely attentive to the soloist’s every nuance. In the central scherzo also, Bell exploited the many extremes of Walton’s often widely contrasting inspiration with a sure deftness of touch, by turns malicious in the first subject and lilting in the second. The final Vivace, again full of Walton’s continual twists and turns, was simply marvellous, resolute in the reprise of the opening theme from the first movement, bristlingly brilliant in the closing bars. The reaction from the audience was certainly the most enthusiastic of the evening with several people (interestingly all female once again) on their feet cheering.

For all the aplomb of the Violin Concerto however, my performance of the evening was undoubtedly that of the Second Symphony. A brilliantly gutsy interpretation from Hickox, demonstrating all of Walton’s compositional characteristics with pinpoint accuracy. By turns snarling and lyrical yet often elusive in the opening Allegro molto, melancholic with a sense of underlying passion in the Lento assai and dramatically contrasting in the Passacaglia, Hickox and the Philharmonia seemed to grasp the essential musical current of the work with startling authority. There was not a section of the orchestra that did not impress, the final statement of the passacaglia theme in the closing paragraphs magnificent from the brass and woodwind in particular. Maybe Hickox sensed a degree of apathy from the audience but he wasted no time in cutting the applause short (muted though it was in comparison to the Violin Concerto) and giving a brief spoken introduction before plunging into the Spitfire Prelude and Fugue from the score for The First of the Few. Stirring stuff and once again played with shoulders back bravado from the orchestra.

This was a tribute concert that offered much to enjoy although an audience as committed to the music as the orchestra would have made all the difference.

Christopher Thomas.

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