Now we go to an equally impressive take on William Walton's second symphony, and possibly the most impressive reading of the Viola Concerto, this time on Naxos. It was during the 1990's that Naxos truly went head to head with the major British labels recording British music-and with shining results, often matching or beating it's English counterparts. Also by this time Naxos often used the finest British ensembles and artists, while it's remarkable budget pricing remained the same-making it a doubly rewarding experience.
The recording opens with possibly the wittiest, most exuberant performances of the "Johannesburg Festival Overture", a work that makes me happy every time I listen to it. Paul Daniel clearly encourages the orchestra's virtuoso wind and brass soloists to point the jazz rhythms idiomatically, making the music sparkle. This is effervescence defined!
It was Thomas Beecham who suggested to Walton that he write a concerto for the great English vio- list Lionel Tertis, who had for many years led a campaign championing the viola as the neglected "Cinderella of the string family." Following the success of both "Facade" and "Portsmouth Point", Walton was gaining confidence in his composing, though still professing difficulty in the actual writing. In February 1929, Walton wrote to his friend Siegfried Sassoon "I finished yesterday the second movement of my Viola Concerto. At the moment, I think it will be my best work, better than the Sinfonia, if only the third and last movement works out well." At the same time, he wrote his good friend, pianist Angus Morrison, relating his progress with the concerto, and implying that his style was "maturing." Morrison was amused to hear this from such a young composer, but changed his mind when Walton played the concerto for him later that spring: "In this work, declared Morrison, he had, in fact, reached complete maturity of style and given full rein, for the first time, to his entirely personal lyrical gift."
The brilliant Viola Concerto is delectably pointed, and the performance here is truly magnetic.
Tomter's tone, with its rapid flicker-vibrato and immaculate intonation is impressive, his 'attack' consistently clean, to match the crisp ensemble of the orchestra. Although he adopts relatively measured speeds both for the Scherzo and the jaunty opening theme of the finale, the rhythmic lift brings out the scherzando jollity of the latter all the more. Daniel's keen observance of dynamic markings is again brought out in the stuttering fanfare theme of the Scherzo, with muted trumpets and trombones for once played pianissimo as marked. The close of the slow epilogue has never been recorded with such a profound hush as here, subsiding into darkness. This is still one of the finest performances of the Viola Concerto, and it's usually my go-to recording.
While I prefer the invention and excitement of Walton's first symphony, his complete technical command is every bit in evidence throughout the Second Symphony. Walton's Symphony No. 2 was commissioned in 1956 by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Society. Unfortunately, the premiere, which took place on September 2nd, 1960 at the Edinburgh International Festival, was marred by faulty balances and an uncomprehending conductor. While it's not as passionate as his Symphony No. 1, Walton’s second essay in the symphonic genre is extremely refined and needless to say a completely realized work of art. Here a relatively broad tempo is taken in the first movement, and the flowing tempo for the central slow movement makes for a lighter, less passionate exercise yet with wholly convincing results. The finale, with its brassy first statement of the passacaglia theme, brings fine dynamic contrasts and the multitude of orchestral colors are fully captured (as they are throughout all three works on this imo spectacular recording).