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Hyperion Records

CDA67794 - Walton: Symphonies
Sir William Turner Walton (1948) by Michael Ayrton (1921-1975)
© Estate of Michael Ayrton / National Portrait Gallery, London

Recording details: November 2010
City Halls, Candleriggs, Glasgow, Scotland
Produced by Andrew Keener
Engineered by Simon Eadon
Release date: July 2011
DISCID: 74124B08
Total duration: 78 minutes 0 seconds


'The BIS version is highly recommendable … but the new issue regularly outshines it in bite and romantic passion. This version of the iconic First Symphony even rivals the version that Andre Previn and the LSO recorded for RCA in 1966, a classic account that has comfortably stood the test of time … the whole disc is a credit not only to the conductor but also to the quality of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, which can stand comparison with any rival' (Gramophone)

'The dazzling brilliance and menacing darkness in Walton’s First Symphony are astutely caught here by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under Martyn Brabbins … the dazzling brilliance and menacing darkness in Walton’s First Symphony are astutely caught here by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under Martyn Brabbins' (The Daily Telegraph)

'Not for a while have I heard a new Walton First to put alongside the top entries … but this muscular performance, built around a dark string presence, stentorian brass, and bright woodwinds, qualifies … [but] the real wonder of this disc is the Second … if you are looking for a disc with both Walton symphonies, Brabbins is the clear choice over Charles MacKerras and Owain Arwel Hughes' (American Record Guide)

'During the last 40-50 years, rival versions of Walton's music have come and gone, but in the case of his symphonies, it is Previn and Szell who have seemingly remained unassailable—until now, for this new Martyn Brabbins disc is fully the equal of its distunguished predecessors and in certain details is superior to either … it is, quite simply, the sound of the orchestra in your living room—with nothing in between. For this, engineer Simon Eadon deserves the highest praise and, with Andrew Keener as producer, the result is a disc of incomparible sonic and musical quality' (International Record Review)

'Brabbins's account is a reminder that for all its derivative elements and bombast, Walton One is a powerful musical statement in its own right … the three-movement Second Symphony belongs to a very different emotional world, though flashes of the First's irascibility occasionally surface. Brabbins extracts all of the necessary orchestral glitter and swagger from the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra … as a neat pairing of Walton's two symphonies on a single disc, this really can't be bettered' (The Guardian)

'Both of William Walton's symphonies are superbly orchestrated testaments to the ardour, romance and bitterness in the composer’s soul … Martyn Brabbins and the BBC Scottish are thrilling champions' (The Times)

'Anyone tempted by both symphonies on a single disc need not hesitate' (The Sunday Times)

'Brabbins leaves us in no doubt about his expert touch in this repertoire. He gets lean, clean results from the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, maintaining tension and momentum in a way that showcases the music’s virtuosic dynamism … Brabbins’ sheer conviction should win them new admirers' (Financial Times)

Allegro assai  [14'01]
Allegro molto  [9'06]
Lento assai  [10'12]

The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Martyn Brabbins gives invigorating and authoritative performances of William Walton’s masterful symphonies. The musicians balance stunning control with breathtaking energy and character.

Following the resounding success of Belshazzar’s Feast, Walton spent three years perfecting his dramatic first symphony. The immensely virtuosic work displays an astounding range of colours and emotional volatility, reflecting the turbulence of Walton’s private life. Despite its fraught gestation—the first performance in 1934 by the London Symphony Orchestra was missing the finale—this work met with an ecstatic critical reception and has remained popular ever since.

The second symphony, premiered by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra in 1960, is more concise and refined. Somewhat out of kilter with the austerity of its time, this masterpiece was slow to emerge from the shadow of its predecessor. Also included is the intimate orchestral work Siesta, from 1926.

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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
Walton began to compose his Symphony No 1 in B flat minor in the early part of 1932 at the request of Sir Hamilton Harty, conductor of the Hallé Orchestra. Conveying this news to his friend Siegfried Sassoon, Walton wrote: ‘I may be able to knock Bax off the map.’ Having written two concertos and a big choral work (Belshazzar’s Feast), he wanted to compose a large-scale piece of ‘absolute’ music, with the Beethovenian symphony as his ideal. Work on it progressed slowly, chiefly at Ascona, Switzerland, where he was living with a young widow, Baroness Imma von Doernberg, and in October 1932 he told Dora Foss, wife of his publisher Hubert Foss, that ‘it shows definite signs of being on the move, a little spasmodic perhaps, but I have managed to get down about forty bars which for me is really saying something’. The symphony originally began with an Allegro version of what is now the first subject of the slow movement. In its place Walton began the work with the haunting rhythmic figure we now know so well. But by December he was ‘stuck’ at ‘an octave on A’. It was at this point that he told Harty there was no chance of the symphony being ready by April, the date for which the conductor had planned the premiere. Harty had just left the Hallé to become conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra and was especially anxious for the publicity and prestige associated with giving the first performance of a major work by a young composer regarded as foremost in his generation.

Another year passed during which three movements were completed. Walton told Christabel Aberconway, one of his close friends, that he thought he had ‘brought off something a bit A1 extra’. But the last movement gave him immense trouble, not least because he had spent much of the summer of 1934 writing his first film score (Escape Me Never) for an irresistible fee. Harty, whose plans for the premiere had again been disrupted, announced in November 1934 that the symphony would be performed on 3 December without a finale. He wrote to Foss: ‘Why don’t you go over to Switzerland and wrest poor W.W.’s Baroness away from him so that he can stop making overtures to her and do a symphony for me instead!’ The three-movement version was a success but it was only a stop-gap. Walton wrote to his friend Patrick Hadley that he was determined that the finale should be up to the standard of the rest. ‘I’ve burnt about three finales … and it is only comparatively lately that I’ve managed to get going on what I hope is the last attempt.’

Unfortunately the impression persisted at the time of the three-movement performance that Walton could not think of a finale, a misconception he inadvertently fostered by admitting that he ‘had to wait for the right mood and could not think of the right thing to do’. In fact while working on the slow movement he had already begun the finale. Its beginning and magnificent coda were composed by December 1934. He was dissatisfied with the middle section until Constant Lambert suggested a fugal episode. The symphony was finished by 31 August. It was played in full on 6 November 1935 when Harty conducted the BBC Symphony Orchestra in the Queen’s Hall, London. None of the above would matter much if it had not led to a critical litany that the finale was ‘tacked on’ and did not fit the rest of the work. On the contrary, it seems to be the only right and proper end to the symphony, the inevitable resolution of all that has gone before and Walton himself thought it was the best movement.

The opening of the symphony, with the drum roll on B flat, the harmony on the horns, the rhythmic and throbbing crescendo in the strings and the oboe’s repeated-note melody, is among the most exciting starts to a symphony ever written. It precipitates a passionate, frenzied drama, in which there is little lyrical respite and in which strings and brass tear the heart out of the themes, worrying at them as if they had caused some harm. One could analyse this movement in terms of intervals, pedal points and ostinati, but a personal drama was clearly at the root of this score. A friend remarked: ‘The trouble was that William changed girlfriends between movements.’ Some time in 1934 Imma left him for another man and he fell in love with Alice, Viscountess Wimborne, with whom he lived happily until her death in 1948. In spite of the break-up, Walton retained the dedication of the symphony to Imma.

In the scherzo, marked Presto con malizia, the ‘malicious’ designation is no illusion. Walton’s sharply accented rhythms convey good humour in Portsmouth Point and Façade. Here there is spite, stinging and lashing. It gives way, in the slow movement, to the solo flute’s desolate melancholy which, in an Allegro version, was the first part of the work to be composed. A second important theme is played by solo clarinet over pizzicato strings. The climax of the movement is a passage of full orchestral fury which dies down to leave the flute alone with its lament in C sharp minor. The finale’s B flat wrenches us back to reality and confidence. The majestic introduction is succeeded by a busy Allegro, but phrases from the ‘crown imperial’ opening recur and it comes as no surprise, after the fugue, when the majestic music returns. A distant poignant trumpet call is but a momentary interruption in the salvoes of strings, brass and drums which bring the symphony to its dramatic close.

The symphony enjoyed an ecstatic reception from musicians, critics and public. It was recorded a month after the first performance. Walton was now established as the ‘white hope’ of English music and he was an obvious choice to be asked to compose a march for the Coronation of King George VI in 1937. But he was under no illusions and said prophetically in 1939: ‘Today’s white hope is tomorrow’s black sheep.’ Six years later, when the Second World War was over, he found himself out of favour with the new generation of critics, for whom Schoenberg’s atonality was the flavour of the decade, and superseded by Benjamin Britten, eleven years his junior, whose opera Peter Grimes had swept all before it in 1945.

Like Elgar, Walton wrote only two symphonies. Elgar’s first in 1908 was a triumphant success, as Walton’s was to be. Elgar’s second, of 1911, was coldly received. Walton’s Symphony No 2 came after a gap of twenty-five years and was also greeted with not much more than muted enthusiasm. It was commissioned in 1956 by the Liverpool Philharmonic Society to celebrate the 750th Anniversary of the granting of a charter of incorporation to Liverpool. Receipt of this commission coincided with the first performance in January 1957 of his Cello Concerto. Many of the younger critics savaged the concerto, which they regarded as outmoded and of no interest. Walton now knew all about the ‘black sheep’!

Serious work on the symphony was delayed by completion of his Partita, commissioned by George Szell for the fortieth anniversary of the Cleveland Orchestra. Szell was a long-standing champion of Walton’s music. The Partita had its first performance on 30 January 1958 and proved to be a brilliant tour de force, aptly described by its composer as ‘eminently straightforward and simple or even vulgar, too much perhaps, nevertheless designedly so’. It is difficult to perform but Szell obtained a dazzling performance. This left Walton clear to begin the symphony, but in February 1958 he told his publisher, Alan Frank, that ‘it is going so badly that I fear that I must start all over again’. A year later he reported that he had finished the first movement—‘it may eventually turn out to be not quite so intolerable as I have been suspecting’. Another year passed and in January 1960 he told Frank that he was feeling extremely low about it: ‘I suffer from nightmares of irate mayors and corporations.’ (Liverpool had expected the work in 1957.) In March, after showing the work to his friend the composer Hans Werner Henze, he was more optimistic, and he finished it in July 1960. The first performance was given not in Liverpool but at the Edinburgh Festival on 2 September by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by John Pritchard. Rehearsals had gone badly, the critics were lukewarm and EMI cancelled plans for a recording. Szell conducted the American premiere in New York in January 1961. Its success began the rehabilitation of Walton in the United States.

The symphony is in three movements. Only recently has it emerged from under the shadow of its predecessor. Walton was a different composer after 1945, technically more accomplished, emotionally more stable, less extravagant, more elusive. He was also an older, more experienced composer. One might draw a parallel with Strauss who in 1910 had poured his exuberance into Der Rosenkavalier but thirty years later, when covering something of the same ground in Capriccio, found a new way to express similar emotions. Walton’s scoring in the second symphony is far more refined than in the first, mellower and more exotic—vibraphone (although reserved for only one note in the coda of the slow movement), piano and celeste, which had found no place in the first symphony, here lend glitter and kaleidoscopic shimmering. Passion and boiling rage are still there, but more controlled. No notes are wasted. The first movement is compact and novel in structure, virtually monothematic, since all the themes are closely related, and it combines the functions of an opening Allegro and Scherzo. Trilling woodwind and explosive brass are thrilling Walton hallmarks treated freshly.

In the slow movement we are in the sound-world of the opera Troilus and Cressida (1947–54)—a Mediterranean nocturne. The woodwind’s principal theme might almost be a portrait of Cressida (who is probably a portrait of the composer’s wife Susana). The orchestration is as fastidious as any by Debussy or Ravel. The finale is in variation form, the theme being a twelve-note series, but there is nothing atonal about it. (In his opera The Turn of the Screw, Britten had the same idea.) The full orchestra announces the portentous theme. The variations are short, ingenious and mostly fast except for the eighth and ninth. Variation 10 provides a dramatic start to the second part of the movement by re-shaping the twelve-note theme as a jazzy fugato. A mysterious episode precedes the triumphant brass fanfares and hammered chords which end the symphony. It is difficult to understand today why this powerful and inventive work should ever have been considered as ‘the mixture as before’ or as a divertimento.

A characteristic of Walton’s music is the blend of romanticism and bitterness. The First Symphony is the example par excellence of this trait but one can detect it in smaller works. Another characteristic is the love of Italy which persisted from his first visit in 1920. One cannot always be sure whether the melancholy is emotional or the effect of Italian sunshine. These remarks apply to the five-minute orchestral piece Siesta, composed in 1926 for the chamber orchestral concerts given in London at the Aeolian Hall under the direction of Guy Warrack and first performed there on 24 November that year. The Times critic and Warrack both said it was conducted by Walton, but the composer maintained it was Warrack who conducted the premiere.

An oboe plays an Italian street song evocative of the Siena night scene which Walton saw and described after he and his publisher, Hubert Foss, escaped from a reception: ‘Up one little street, we stopped on hearing music. We were at the top of the steps to a lower level and at the bottom was a tiny open space lit by one lamp. Four people were playing tangos on mandolins and whistling the tune with a flexatone to help, and one or two couples were dancing. It was such a beautiful sight, so simple and romantic and peasant-like and such a change from the idiotic reception.’ That scene is captured by the delicate orchestration. Some years later, in 1961, Walton heard a recording and admitted he had forgotten the work—‘charming’ was his verdict. He had dedicated it to his friend Stephen Tennant, the ‘original’ of Sebastian Flyte in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited.

Michael Kennedy © 2011

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