Wednesday, May 13, 2015

William Walton - Symphony No. 1 - Portsmouth Point Overture - The London Philharmonic - Leonard Slatkin - Virgin Classics Ultraviolet 1988 (re-release1994)

Someone requested Walton symphonies a few months ago (regrettably he only penned two, the first of which especially has an important place in 20th century British symphonic repertoire, not to mention among 20th century symphonies in general) and thus I'm posting them as a happy distraction before I have to work, plus I haven't listened to this disc in years! This recording, with The London Philharmonic under Leonard Slatkin-is still my absolute favorite after all these years; and there's several fantastic versions out there including a new Chandos disc that is supposed to be outstanding, but I haven't heard it. Indeed this Virgin release went somewhat under the radar for many (or so it seems to me) yet all of the reviews from important journals (Gramophone, Fanfare and the like) held this now classic disc in the highest regards.  I cherish it and hope it's a great discovery for you-unless of course you know it already :)

Walton's oft recorded and deservedly well known "Portsmouth Point Overture" was his first work for full orchestra. He wrote it while on a trip to Spain in the spring of 1925. While there he was attracted by the Catalonian dance, the sardana, and some of its rhythm found its way into this score alongside the hornpipes. It is very much a youthful 'jeu d' esprit', nodding in the direction of Stravinsky somewhat. Its title is that of an etching by Thomas Rowlandson (1756-1827) depicting the bustling, bawdy scene at Portsmouth just before embarkation. The music is as lively as the etching, with the opening theme soon broken up by syncopation and cross-accents. The time signature constantly changes, imparting a marvelously vital rhythmical animation to the score. In its jaunty scherzando mood, the overture is the forerunner of Walton's scherzos in his concertos. Portsmouth Point was first performed at a concert of the International Society of Contemporary Music in Zurich in 1926, conducted by Volkar Andreae. The first London performance a week later was conducted by Eugene Goosens. It left no doubt that a vibrant new personality in English music had arrived.

Walton's Symphony No. 1 has attracted many legends concerning its first performance. Walton began to compose it in the beginning of 1932. Having written two concertos and a large choral work, he wanted to compose a large-scale piece of 'absolute' music, with the Beethovenian symphony as his ideal. His initial idea was the theme, in an allegro tempo, which eventually became the first subject of the slow movement. But he soon became "stuck", as he put it, and although the first two movements were composed with reasonable speed, Walton came to a standstill with the third. Sir Hamilton Harty, conductor of the LSO (and composer of 'decent' music), had long been promised the first performance of a Walton symphony when one was written, and he finally announced it for March 1934 as the culmination of his first (1933-4) season with the orchestra-only to then have to cancel it. 

Walton's problem was an inability to start the slow movement, and it was not until he thought of slowing down his original idea for the first movement that the music began to flow. Even then he had misgivings, but Harty had again announced the symphony and rather than incur the publicity of a further postponement, Walton reluctantly agreed to allow the three completed movements to be performed, which they were on December 3rd, 1934. Unfortunately the impression persisted that Walton could not think of a finale-an impression 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, the beginning and the magnificent coda of the finale were composed that December; it was the beginning of the fugue that delayed him. This was resolved in June and July of 1935 and the symphony was finished by August 31st. It was played in full on November 6th that year. John Ireland wrote to Walton: "It has established you as the most vital and original genius in Europe".

The opening of the work is one of the most exciting starts to a symphony ever written I think it is fair to say, 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. It precipitates a passionate, frenzied drama, in which there is little lyrical respite and in which strings and brass practically tear apart the theme's center. In the scherzo, the 'malicious' designation is no illusion. Walton's sharply accented rhythms convey good humor in Portsmouth Point and the wonderful and idiosyncratic "Facade", but here there is spite, stinging and lashing which gives way in the slow movement to the solo flute's desolate melancholy. 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 downs to leave the flute aloe 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 from the "crown-imperial" opening recur and it is no surprise, after the fugue, when the majestic music returns. A distant and poignant trumpet-call is but momentary interruption from the fiery release of strings, brass and drums which bring the symphony to its dramatic close. A real knockout!!

1)Portsmouth Point Overture (5:23)

Symphony No. 1 in B flat minor

2)Allegro Assai (13:55)
3)Presto, con malizia (5:31)
4)Andante con malincolia (11:47)
5)Finale - Maestoso (12:51)


Tzadik said...

Symphony No. 2 (along w. the Viola Concerto and the J.F. Overture) will have to wait until tonight, I must go already..


Anonymous said...

Sublime Sinfonia,the best opus of composer,another opus not have the english.Abrazos de Tapirman.

Tzadik said...

Hola Doc T, a mi me gusta la primera sinfonía de Walton y su música en general. Estoy feliz de que usted también :) -¿Tiene funciona un Walton favorito? ¿Es esta sinfonía? Tu amigo Stateside,


Anonymous said...

Yes,Symphony n.1 is the best,and ViolinConcero,Tzadik,my friend,¿another Symphony 6 or 10 of George Lloyd? Muchas gracias,tu blog es magnífico!! Tapirman

Paul Terry said...

I'm a big fan of Walton, thank you. I have been over the top busy lately so I haven't had much time, but I will be getting to these this weekend. Thanks again, bud!

Lee Denham said...

Many thanks for your blog, with the music and your comments therein (the Kerem was a revelation!).

I agree with you about Slatkin's Walton First and likewise it is my favourite version too. Performances of this seem to divide opinion with the coda of the last movements, with some taking it fast (Previn/LSO) whilst other slower and more grandly (as Slatkin does here, my preference). Either way it is one of the last century's truly great symphonies.


Tzadik said...

Hiya Paul, nice to hear from you. I am a huge fan of Walton too, I'm wanting for time to go through my entire Walton collection! So many gems..


Tzadik said...

Hi there Lee, thank you for visiting and commenting.
I'm happy to hear you enjoyed the Kerem disc that much! Yes, I agree with you and I derive greater sonic pleasure from the more majestic approach. I can listen happily to many versions needless to say, even when performed briskly it's still a wonderful listen. One of the 20th century greats indeed.