RECORDINGS OF THE YEAR
‘Edward Gardner presides over blisteringly eloquent and splendidly unbuttoned accounts of both these Walton masterworks’
Andrew Achenbach listens to a Walton pairing that compares with the composer’s own recordings
Walton Violin Concertoa. Symphony No 1 a Tasmin Little vn BBC Symphony Orchestra / Edward Gardner Chandos F Í CHSA5136 (77’ • DDD/DSD)
Edward Gardner presides over blisteringly eloquent and splendidly unbuttoned accounts of both these Walton masterworks, the First Symphony’s vehement opening Allegro assai in particular unfolding with a bite, purpose and snarling intensity to match any rival. (I was even put in mind of the composer’s own dynamic, superbly paced interpretation with the Philharmonia from the early 1950s – and that’s saying something.) Gardner has a sharp ear and directs with an unwavering sense of the long line. What’s more, the BBC Symphony Orchestra are with him every step of the way, their strings especially extracting every ounce of expressive clout from Walton’s irresistibly sinewy counterpoint: I love the feisty rhythmic snap of the cellos from fig 7 or 1’46” during the first movement’s exposition; and, a little later on between 10 and 11 (2’30” and 2’44”), listen
18 GRAMOPHONE RECORDINGS OF THE YEAR 2014
to those irresistibly full-throated violas and cellos really digging into their parts.
The scherzo (marked Presto con malizia) fairly rattles along at a daredevil pace that recalls Leonard Slatkin’s underrated LPO account (Virgin, 8/88 – nla) – and even has a welcome dash or two of extra venom to match. On balance, André Previn and the LSO remain unsurpassed here, though few could surely resist the brazen swagger on show in the closing stages (listen out for some truly roistering horn trills). Absolutely no complaints, either, with the anguished slow movement, where the orchestral playing is as smoulderingly passionate as one could desire. Time to heap praise upon the BBC SO’s woodwind principals: in its plaintive beauty the opening flute solo surely comes close to the ideal, and I guarantee it will be many a moon before you hear more sweetly expressive work from both clarinet and oboe in the pages that follow. Searingly intense, songful work, too, from the violas and cellos and then first violins when they take up the clarinet’s achingly beautiful secondary melody (precisely appassionato vibrato espressivo as marked). What a devastatingly personal, superbly concise essay this is: Walton at the very peak of his powers.
As is well known by now, the symphony’s finale caused the composer no end of grief, so much so that the work’s long-awaited world premiere in November 1934 by the LSO under the baton of Sir Hamilton Harty comprised merely the first three movements. By August of the following year, however, the finale was ready; on November 6, 1935, Harty and the BBC SO scored a triumph with the completed symphony at London’s Queen’s Hall (and, on December 9-10, 1935, the conductor took it into the recording studio, this time again with the LSO). The finale’s altogether more extrovert, crowdpleasing demeanour continues to prove a stumbling block for some commentators, who find Walton’s sanguine inspiration worryingly incompatible with and/or failing to measure up to the exalted benchmark of what has gone before (in the Maestoso outer portions there are unmistakable echoes of his film music and ceremonial offerings to come). Refreshingly, Gardner approaches the movement with no such lingering hang-ups.
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