Movement 1: Allegro molto
Movement 2: Lento assai
Movement 3: Passacaglia: Theme and Variations – Fugato – Coda (Scherzando)
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.
from notes by Michael Kennedy © 2011