Three cheers to all concerned (New Haven Symphony Orchestra, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library and Nimbus Records) for embarking on the challenging and important work of recording William Walton’s chamber and symphonic music using the original manuscripts as source material. Every time music is edited for the benefit of wide availability through publication small changes (which can have large consequences) often slip into the result and are frequently taken as “gospel.” To further fuel artistic discourse, one hopes that a compendium of the “findings” might also become part of this project.
The first disc pairs Walton’s Violin Concerto (1938-39) with Symphony No. 1 (1932-35).
The oft-recorded symphony is given an energetic reading by music director William Boughton and the NHSO. The music itself often cries out for a silver screen with which to complement the largely episodic writing that covers a wide array of emotions in every movement. The climaxes in “Allegro assai,” for example, are reached but—through no fault of the musicians—never thrill. The sense of inevitability is absent and the bombastic ending, slipping into a saccharine major mode and reinforced with booming tympani finally quits without satisfying. The hint of “Caravan” in the closing section is at one with the notion of a long walk home.
The delightfully titled “Presto, con malizia” is at once appropriately nervso and features deft bits of dissonance and a nod to Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony. The playing is crisp and clean with only a few untidy string attacks causing any concern.
Some beautiful tone and a perfectly rendered change of register from the principal oboe set the stage for a most convincing “Andante con malinconia.” The bookend flute solos are another source of pleasure as are the welcome triplets which provide much-needed compositional relief after the preponderant rhythmic and pitch pedals.
In the “Finale,” the opening blocks of sound and melodic construction would only have to be slightly rearranged to burst into Crown Imperial, just two years away. The arrival of what promised to become a fully formed three-voice fugue added greatly to the variety but wasn’t convincingly worked out. Walton suffered from writing the ending first, then forcing himself to work backwards to the question. That artistic predicament comes through loud and clear. There are moments when Broughton can’t manage to keep his charges completely together, adding a smidge of unintended excitement. The brass are particularly effective and mightily reinforced by the tympanist.
The master of small form named the disc’s opening work a Concerto, but, with its inability to sit still and fully develop material, seems more of an extended rhapsody. It is immediately apparent that this performance was captured in a recording studio as the cavernous placement of soloist and orchestra stands in stark contrast to the symphony’s concert-hall ambiance.
Violinist Kurt Nikkanen brings his considerable skills to bear on the music that owes much of its mood (notably the first measures of “Andante tranquillo”) and thematic construction to Jean Sibelius and his magnificent essay in D Minor. The frequent calls for soaring, searing portamenti are especially well-answered; the generous portion of double stops when truly seul or weaving in and out of the orchestral tableau begin with extraordinary precision and balance only to slightly falter as the music wears on.
In many ways the “Presto” produced the strongest result, infused with playful zest, wry pizzicati and an “Invitation to the Dance” that no one could turn down.
The “Vivace,” clocking in at 13.:42 (nearly a minute longer than Nigel Kennedy’s 1987 version with André Previn and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra), needs more pace (although Nikkanen could be felt pushing a couple of times) to burn off the moments of awkwardness that prevent the full realization of the composer’s “lively” intention.
The next installment of this four-year series is awaited with interest. JWR