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Sir William WALTON (1902-1983)
Violin Concerto (1939, 1943) [31:29]
Partita for Orchestra (1957) [17:46]
Variations on a Theme by Hindemith (1963) [24:44]
Spitfire Prelude and Fugue [7:27]
Anthony Marwood (violin)
BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra/Martyn Brabbins
rec. City Halls, Candleriggs, Glasgow, September 2013 & April 2016. DDD.
Reviewed as 24/96 download with pdf booklet from hyperion-records.co.uk
HYPERION CDA67986 [81:26]

July and August often find the recording labels treading water but that’s not so from Hyperion this year.  In addition to this Walton recording, which challenges existing recommendations, the Orlando Consort continue their traversal of the music of Guillaume de Machaut (Sovereign Beauty, CDA68134) and Trinity College Choir, Cambridge, directed by Stephen Layton, sing some of the music of their alumnus Sir Charles Villiers Stanford (CDA68174).  As downloads from other labels there’s Richard Strauss’s Metamorphosen and other works from Linn (CKD538 – not quite rivalling Karajan’s two recordings), from King’s College, Cambridge, a fine recital and a rare opportunity to hear Stephen Cleobury play the restored organ (The King of Instruments, KGS0020) and from the Hallé Wagner’s Lohengrin live which may not hit the top flight vocally but is well worth hearing (CDHLD7539).

For August Westminster Cathedral Choir give us a valuable alternative take on the music of renaissance composer John Sheppard (Media Vita, CDA68187).  And that’s mentioning only the releases that I have sampled to date.

We certainly did not lack very good recordings of the Walton Violin Concerto, old and new.  Yehudi Menuhin may no longer have been at the peak of technical ability when he recorded it with William Walton himself conducting, released in 1958 (Warner, download only, with Viola Concerto, or with Symphony No.1 and Belshazzar, also download only, or multi-CD box) but I don’t regret having got to know the work from that recording. 

Menuhin was not, of course, the only violinist to record the work with Walton himself: there was an earlier version with Jascha Heifetz, still available to stream or download on RCA for as little as £3.49, coupled with Mozart Violin Concerto No.5.  Not surprisingly, the tempi on this recording are a good deal faster than with Menuhin or, indeed, on the new Hyperion recording.  Arguably the first movement is a shade removed from tranquillo and the 1950 sound is less than ideal, though good for its age.  Yet this is my benchmark version, especially attractive when available until very recently as part of a super-budget twofer (with Cello and Viola Concertos, Symphony No.1 and Sinfonia Concertante: 74321925752 review review): you may be lucky enough to find the odd copy for around £5. 

The only comparable bargain comes from Naxos: a recording with Dong-Suk Kang and Paul Daniel, with Tim Hugh in the Cello Concerto (8.554325 – review).  The valuable 4-CD Decca budget collection which includes Tasmin Little in the Violin Concerto is now download or streaming only.  (4705082 – review).

Tasmin Little re-recorded the Walton Violin Concerto with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Edward Gardner.  Released in 2014, this is the most recent of my comparisons, coupled with Symphony No.1 (Chandos CHSA5136).  Michael Greenhalgh made this a Recording of the Month – review – and there are earlier reviews by John Quinn – also a Recording of the Month – and myself.  I compared the Chandos release with other recordings in detail there, so I won’t repeat the exercise except that I ended by rating Little and Gardner my top preferences along with Heifetz and Walton. 

That choice was made easier by the existence of a very fine Hyperion recording of the Walton Viola Concerto from Lawrence Power and Ilan Volkov (CDA67587, with Rubbra – Recording of the Month: review review).  That’s one of several fine Walton recordings which Hyperion also already had in their catalogue, including the Cello Concerto from Steven Isserlis and Paavo Jarvi (CDA68077, with Elgar and Holst – review DL News Recording of the Month) and the two symphonies plus Siesta from the BBC Scottish and Martyn Brabbins, as on the new release (CDA67794).  John Quinn thought that ‘a splendid disc’, with Rob Barnett in agreement – review.  It was pipped at the post as my Download of the Month in July 2011 only because I awarded that title to Smetana’s Má Vlast from an unexpected quarter – the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra and Claus Peter Flor on BIS.

It came as no great surprise, then, to find myself thoroughly enjoying the new Hyperion.  The chosen tempi lie between the urgency of the Heifetz/Walton and the greater relaxation of Little and Gardner – close, indeed, to those adopted by Menuhin and Walton but in no sense merely a comfortable compromise.  It’s clear from the earlier recording that Martyn Brabbins has an instinctive feel for Walton’s music and Anthony Marwood is first-rate in the solo role: better able to cope with the technical demands than Menuhin and in no way inferior to Heifetz in that respect.  Heifetz usually pushed the pace in his recordings – mostly to the advantage of the music and nowhere more so than in his recording of the Brahms concerto with Fritz Reiner, still my benchmark – but he does so perhaps a little too much in the Walton.

Among recent recordings Akiko Suwanai with the CBSO and Sakari Oramo (Decca) and Dong Suk Kang with the English Northern Philharmonia and Paul Daniel (Naxos, see above) come closest to Heifetz’s fast tempi without sounding hurried.  The Suwanai recording, coupled with a very fine account of the Sibelius, seems never to have been generally available on disc in the UK except as a Japanese SACD-only import but it was briefly available as a 24/96 download from Linn, in which form I recommended it highly – DL News 2012/23.  Those Linn Decca and DG downloads are no longer available but it can be obtained in mp3, 16- and 24-bit download form from Presto and it’s well worth considering by those looking for the Sibelius coupling.

Marwood and Brabbins are more in accord with the tempi on another recording which I like, from Nigel Kennedy, the RPO and André Previn.  The original coupling with the Viola Concerto (EMI CDC7496282) is long deleted and even the reissue of the Violin Concerto with the Cello Concerto (Paul Tortelier and Paavo Berglund), Symphonies 1 and 2 (LPO, LSO/Sir Charles Mackerras) and the now rarely performed Bach pastiche The Wise Virgins (Louis Frémaux) is download only, but the latter is well worth having, at around £10 (mp3) or £13 (lossless).  (Warner 0947982).

I shall not be dispensing with either Heifetz on the RCA twofer or Kennedy on the original EMI CD but I suspect that I shall mostly be listening to the Violin Concerto henceforth in the new Hyperion version.  I thought long and hard about making this a Recording of the Month, especially after Radio 3 Record Review made it their Recording of the Week.  In the end I settled for regarding it as primus inter pares – first among several very fine equals – rather than an outright first choice.  Listening again to so many fine recordings has reminded me what a wonderful work it is.

The two chief couplings on the new album are also available on other very fine recordings, though once again the most recommendable version of the Partita is download only (Walton conducts Walton, with the Violin and Viola Concertos – Yehudi Menuhin – Symphony No.1 and Belshazzar’s Feast). (Warner 9689422, 2 CDs).  Budget lovers are well catered for on Naxos, with Paul Daniel conducting the English Northern Sinfonia (with Symphony No.1, 8.553180 - DL Roundup October 2008).

The wonderful recordings of the Partita and Hindemith Variations by the dedicatees of the former, George Szell and his Cleveland Orchestra, seem to have been sunk without trace in the UK: if you can find a copy of the Sony Essential Classics single CD containing the Variations or the 2-CD set containing both works for a reasonable price snap it up. 

Naxos open their recording of the Hindemith Variations with a very fine account of the Spitfire Prelude and Fugue.  That fits the scheme of the album very well, with the rousing March from A History of the English Speaking Peoples bringing up the rear (8.553869, with Sinfonia Concertante review review), but the Hyperion arrangement in ending with the Spitfire is better still.  Paul Daniel gives the music just a little more time to develop but there’s very little to choose between these two very fine accounts.

Where I have compared the new recording with its predecessors it has never been found wanting, though I was surprised to note how well the Naxos alternatives, even as mp3 downloads, stand up as performances and recordings against the very good 24-bit Hyperion.  At £13.50 that’s a shade more than you might expect to pay for the CD (£10.50 from Hyperion direct), itself more than the Hyperion 16-bit CD-quality download (£8.99) but, I think, worth the extra, especially as Hyperion always include the booklet in pdf and epub formats.  Incidentally, the recording of Portsmouth Point, Scapino, Siesta and The Wise Virgins Suite, set down by Sir Adrian Boult with the LPO in 1954 sounds not at all bad for its age in the Naxos Classical Archives transfer (9.80598 – from eclassical.com DL News 2012/21).

As always with Hyperion, the quality of the booklet adds to the appeal of the recording: in this case the notes by Robert Matthew-Walker help the novice find his or her way around the music while still being valuable for experienced Waltonians.

While the competition is very keen in all four works on the new CD, and I shall continue to listen to other versions of all of them, the Hyperion becomes not only my overall choice for the coupling but a very strong contender in all the individual works.

Brian Wilson


 

 




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