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Sir William WALTON (1902-1983)
Violin Concerto in B minor (1938 re. 1943) [31:29]
Partita for Orchestra (1958) [17:46]
Variations on a theme by Hindemith (1963) [24:44]
Spitfire Prelude & Fugue (1943) [7:27]
Anthony Marwood (violin), Martyn Brabbins conducting the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra
rec. 2013/16, City Halls, Candleriggs, Glasgow
HYPERION CDA67986 [81:28]

Nearly seven years ago this same group of performers made a very well-received disc for Hyperion of the two Walton Symphonies. A bit of a surprise that it should have taken so long to revisit a winning formula - especially since half the programme - the Variations and the Spitfire Prelude & Fugue have been in the recording can since 2013. The wait has resulted in an exceptionally generous disc running to over 81 minutes but I am not sure it makes for the most logical or coherent of Walton discs - especially with the Prelude placed last and the main work - the violin concerto - first.

As the liner to the new Dutton recording of the original version of this concerto points out; when Walton was asked on Desert Island Discs which of his works he would preserve he unhesitatingly chose the violin concerto and it was his recording with Heifetz - the work's dedicatee - that was his final choice of disc. Without doubt it is a stunning score and one which in every way sits at the cusp of Walton’s compositional life. Written in 1938-9, the works with which Walton boldly burst onto the world stage were in the triumphant recent past: Portsmouth Point, the Viola Concerto, his Symphony No.1 and Belshazzar's Feast. In the future would lie the technically brilliant but less overtly ‘confident’ works of the second half of his life. In every sense - given his lifespan of 1902-1983 - the 1941 UK premiere of the concerto lies at the very centre of his life.

So, in an almost Janus-like fashion, the music of the concerto looks back to the certainties of the previous decade and forward to the pained lyricism that embodied the best of Walton's later music. In turn, interpreters can emphasise either element and, very broadly speaking, different recordings tend towards one or the other camp. Not surprisingly Heifetz’s recording is astonishingly brilliant, but the characteristic of his playing which fits this work to perfection is the improvisatory freedom of his playing, allied to the tightly focussed tone and fast vibrato. In this regard there is a relatively ‘old-fashioned’ quality to Heifetz, in comparison to the modern preference for a school of violin playing which requires a fatter tone. It has to be said the concerto has been lucky in the recording studio with many fine versions indeed - all, including this disc, up until the new recording by Lorraine McAslan, of the 1943 revision. As an aside - I would strongly recommend admirers of the work to hear the new disc by McAslan on Dutton - once heard, the percussion alone in the central movement is sorely missed in the revision!

An old favourite of mine is Zino Francescatti's CBS/Sony recording with Ormandy in Philadelphia, combining intensity and muscularity to telling effect. Walton was enamoured - in every sense - by Kyung-Wha Chung’s performance with Previn and the LSO in enthusiastic support. . Previn moved to the RPO on EMI to accompany Nigel Kennedy in a much-praised coupling of the violin and viola concerti. Indeed, it is this version that is similar in spirit to the new recording by Anthony Marwood. Marwood has a lovely musing quality to his playing - I do not think it is too much to hear “herein is enshrined the soul of...” Alice Wimbourne. Walton was ever the practical commercial pragmatist, so the financial inducement of a joint commission from the New York World fair and Heifetz was too good an offer to miss, but the emotional impetus of the work is the love affair with Wimbourne – so much so that it is curious that liner writer Robert Matthew-Walker makes no reference to it in his otherwise fine note.

If Marwood is excellent in the extended lyrical passages I do miss the last degree of malizia both from him and indeed the orchestra elsewhere. All of the playing from soloist and ensemble is absolutely top notch, but I do prefer hearing the strings really dig into the jagged cross-rhythms that are so characteristic of Walton’s best music. Interestingly, returning to Kennedy/Previn they too make more of the playfulness of these passages rather than of their aggressive qualities - Previn is such a master of this music - and both he and Kennedy find a lilting insouciance to the Neopolitan serenade that interrupts briefly the manic tarantella which is the central movement that Brabbins/Marwood at a steadier (heavier?) tempo do not discover. Listening to Chung in this movement you can understand why the composer’s head was turned! Tasmin Little's earlier recording on Decca with Andrew Litton is very fine too - again she allies a sovereign technique to the capriciousness that is an essential characteristic of this music. Little returned to the work in one of its most recent recordings this time for Chandos coupled with Edward Gardner's admired recording of the first Symphony. Personally, I prefer Little’s earlier recording by a hair but both are very fine indeed. All of which is to say competition on disc in this work is very fierce. No-one coming to this new performance in isolation would be anything but very happy and Marwood plays with superb assurance (listen to the quicksilver dispatch of the tarantella's closing pages for evidence of technique to spare) - but so do Kennedy, Little and Chung - and that is before I mention other enjoyed versions by Haendel, Rosand or Ehnes for starters.

And that sense of fine performances that ultimately do not displace catalogue stalwarts is much the response I have to the remainder of the disc too. In the Hindemith Variations and the Partita the obvious comparison is with the crackling virtuosity of the first recordings by George Szell and his seemingly superhuman Cleveland Orchestra. For sure the old CBS/Sony recordings come up analytically close and unglamorous but with playing of this standard it works. Walton’s Partita has never achieved the wider popularity that music of this easy instant appeal surely merits. I suspect that is down to the fact that its under twenty minutes of really tricky music makes it hard to programme in the concert hall. Brabbins' performance lacks the final injection of brioso that makes the Szell such compelling listening. On disc there is surprisingly little competition. I rather like Paul Daniels' version on Naxos which bubbles with good humour although the occasional lack of perfect ensemble suggests a limited recording budget. Walton’s own recording with the Philharmonia is more similar in spirit to Szell rather than to Brabbins - especially in the central Pastorale Siciliana which Brabbins extends to 7:14 compared to 5:58 from Walton and 5:47 by Szell. That being said, both here and in the variations, I think Brabbins’ interpretations are at their most convincing in the lyrical/languid sections – Walton’s own Pastorale can sound a little impatient! Curiously, Andrew Litton's Centenary survey did not include the Partita which I rather imagine would have suited Litton to a tee. Leonard Slatkin’s recording with the LPO as the coupling to his Belshazzar is also great fun - and just about the only other version to match Szell for sheer velocity alone in the outer movements.

By the time of the Hindemith Variations Walton was making his near constant compositional block into a virtue by writing extended movements and entire works in variation form. I suspect the rationale was that writing variants on the same material played to his strengths of orchestration and capturing the essence of a mood in a short time frame without the strictures of writing extended works bounded by the rules of sonata form et al. The 1963 Variations on a theme by Hindemith are probably his finest work in this form. Again Brabbins seems strangely 'contained' in the overtly brilliant variations - No.4 'con slancio' is a particular disappointment and No.6 'scherzando' is dainty rather than mercurial. The Hyperion recording here - and indeed throughout - is very good at capturing the richness of the BBC Scottish SO - the heraldic No.9 is a case in point - Walton could seemingly pull these heroic perorations out of a hat. The Finale/Coda is Walton’s other beloved compositional refuge - right back to the problematic finale of the first Symphony - a fugue. Here Brabbins finds an element of tension that has eluded him elsewhere. The coda, with the return of Hindemith's movingly beautiful theme in all its unadorned glory, is one of Walton's finest achievements. Vernon Handley in Bournemouth on EMI is impressive throughout this work - more so than Litton with the same orchestra on Decca. Paul Daniels proves to be an enthusiastically vigorous interpreter again - his English Northern Philharmonia have the bite and dynamism I miss from Brabbins’ Scottish orchestra. The Naxos recording may not be technically the most sophisticated but the spirit of the music making is very exciting. Walton’s only recording of this work was not made in the studio but was the record of the first performance with the RPO who seem rather stretched by the work.

Much the same comment can be applied to the Spitfire Prelude & Fugue that completes the disc. In isolation it is as enjoyable a piece of excerpted film music as you will find: Walton at his most stiff upper-lipped. You either respond to this style of heroic music or you don’t - I certainly do. Comparing Brabbins to Walton conducting the Philharmonia the former does not achieve the same intensity or weight of string tone in the ‘big’ tune which is played in a fairly perfunctory way - to my ear it does not sound as if Brabbins is totally comfortable with the idiom - he pushes on through the Prelude in a way that singularly fails to make the most of the emotion implicit in the music. Likewise, the following Fugue is clean and precise without the dynamism or drive the finest performances have - that said the poignant violin solo by Laura Samuel is beautifully played.

For all of Hyperion's typically high production values this is ultimately a disc that cannot claim precedence over pre-existing recordings. Anthony Marwood is a very impressive and intelligent performer of the glorious violin concerto but ultimately there is not enough consistent personality in the interpretations from Martyn Brabbins for this extremely generous and well-played disc to displace older versions.

Nick Barnard

Previous review: Brian Wilson

 

 




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