By a strange coincidence, two recordings of Walton’s First Symphony have appeared among the Collectors Corner selection on two consecutive months, one a live recording by the London Symphony Orchestra under Sir Colin Davis, the other a studio recording from Hyperion with the BBS Scottish Symphony Orchestra conducted by Martyn Brabbins. Although in recent years Sir William Walton had come (rather unfairly) to be viewed as a composer of charming but rather lightweight pièces d’occasion like Siesta and the Coronation Marches, he was once regarded as the Great Hope of British music, and his First Symphony,written in the early 1930s, was perhaps the most anticipated such work in English musical history. It was performed several times without its Finale, such was the public eagerness to hear the work—the scrupulous Walton was not to be entirely satisfied with this last movement for another year. Listening back to it now, I am reminded what a formative time this was in British music, with Bax, Bliss, Rubbra, Ireland, Havergal Brian, and Vaughan Williams, not to mention the young Britten and Tippett, all contributing to the melting-pot. Perhaps Walton’s success was connected to his always evident popular touch, the very thing that damned his music for the post-war avante-garde. Today, the Symphony sounds authentically of its era, the equal of those by more seriously-regarded composers, and very English, but in all honesty hardly as outstanding as contemporaries believed. The anguished, questioning quality of the first three movements seems just a little contrived, and by contrast, the Finale, which troubled Walton so extendedly, strikes the modern listener as almost swaggeringly confident,bordering on the filmic—it clearly had a strong influence on Richard Rodney Bennett. I’m not sure that as a symphony it entirely hangs together, but if one accepts that the sum is perhaps less convincing than the parts it’s a thoroughly enjoyable work.
Brabbins’s choice as partner to the First is Walton’s much more succinct Second Symphony, a work that was regarded by almost everyone as an anachronism when it was premièred in 1960. Today, in our happily pluralistic musical world, this work charm by its optimism; gone are the mandatory writhing and dissonances of the First Symphony, instead Walton generates a mood of understated excitement and—almost—festiveness. In fact, festiveness is a mood Walton frequently approaches, from his early Portsmouth Point Overture and the Marches through to this Symphony. For unease is substituted anticipation, for anguish, eagerness. Who could dislike this delightful piece?
The LSO disc couples the First Symphony with Sir Colin Davis’ 2008 recording of Walton’s oratorio Belshazzar’s Feast, a work that really divides listeners. Lovers of the English Choral tradition love its pace and energy, its wholesome Anglicanism. Others, myself included, find it vulgar, almost corny, and struggle to take it seriously—but that is the Walton paradox, his music vacillating between the highly cerebral and borderline cheesy. The LSO recording is extremely powerful in the brooding and dissonant opening, but even they cannot prevent the second half of the work, the intendedly pagan “Praise Ye” and the subsequent “Then sing aloud” sections, from having a bit of a “Knees up” character.
That said, there is still a huge amount to enjoy in both discs. The energetic and convincing live performances by Sir Colin Davis and the LSO at the Barbican Centre in the City of London in the mid-2000shave an unapologetically full-blooded romanticism; the Finale of the Symphony particularly radiates self-assurance;the hybrid SACD sound on this recording is astonishing, the percussion sending my cats diving for cover. Brabbins’ version with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra has from the outset a more uneasy, disturbed, quality that is perhaps more in keeping with Walton’s intentions—and reminds us that a major influence on British music of the time was the symphonic idiom of Sibelius(think Bax!). My preference in these recordings is for the probing, unsettled mood of the Brabbins performance on Hyperion, and the coupling with the Second Symphony; I can, however, easily imagine that others might incline to the expansive romanticism of the Colin Davis and the pairing of Belshazzar’s Feast. What can indubitably be said, though, is that noone is going to be anything but satisfied with either.