Walton: Suite from Henry V; Prelude & Suite from Richard III; Spitfire Prelude and Fugue

COMPOSERS: Walton
LABELS: EMI Walton Edition
WORKS: Suite from Henry V; Prelude & Suite from Richard III; Spitfire Prelude and Fugue
PERFORMER: Laurence Olivier (speaker); chorus, Philharmonia Orchestra/William Walton
CATALOGUE NO: CDM 5 65007 2 ADD mono/stereo Reissue (1946-63)
Few composers who lived during the first 30 years of the 20th century took a more active interest in the recording process than EDWARD ELGAR. His involvement began in 1914 at a time when the technology was too primitive to be able to offer anything other than a drastically compromised representation of his original intentions. But this changed with the advent of electrical recording in the mid-Twenties, and Elgar eagerly seized the opportunity afforded by HMV to record most of his major orchestral works in increasingly acceptable sound.

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All this later material was painstakingly transferred to CD in EMI’s Elgar Edition of the early Nineties, and its reappearance under the umbrella of its British Composers’ Series is long overdue. Of the three discs that have been issued recently, there’s little doubt that the exceedingly generous coupling of the First Symphony (recorded 1930) and Falstaff (recorded in 1931 and 1932) takes pride of place.

Much has been written about the interpretational nuances of Elgar’s conducting on disc and the extent to which the final results of both his acoustic and electrical recordings represent a ‘definitive’ account of the scores. But surely few would argue with the contention that this performance of the First Symphony ranks among the most involving ever made. There is a driving intensity to the music-making that is sufficiently flexible to allow for moments of considerable tempo fluctuation, but without losing sight of the structural goals in the symphonic argument. This is particularly noticeable in the outer movements where few interpreters have effected the final return of the motto theme with the same degree of inevitability as the composer. The performance of Falstaff is no less remarkable with brilliantly incisive playing from the LSO and vivid characterisation of the many episodes in the score.

Five years earlier Elgar recorded his Second Symphony with the LSO in two extraordinarily punishing recording sessions that took place on the same day. Once again, there’s considerable energy in the interpretation which resists obvious temptations to linger unduly at certain moments. But the sound is fuzzy, and the orchestral playing lacks the same level of discipline achieved in the First Symphony and Falstaff. This is a comparatively disappointing release, though many will be tempted to acquire it for the sake of a tantalisingly brief excerpt of Elgar rehearsing the orchestra in the third movement which is offered here as a coupling.

The final Elgar disc is a far more attractive proposition which includes the three concert overtures, conveniently placed in chronological order of composition, as well as a purposeful yet expressive account of the Cello Concerto with Beatrice Harrison that provides a necessary corrective to the far more indulgent approach pioneered by Jacqueline du Pré. Although the sound quality is variable, the 1926 Cockaigne being noticeably inferior to the 1930 In the South, all the performances exude vitality and fascinating details of scoring, such as the glorious entry of the organ at the climax of Cockaigne.

During the period when Elgar bequeathed his legacy of recordings for HMV, the young WILLIAM WALTON took up conducting his own compositions with the prime intention of imparting rhythmic clarity to music that at the time taxed the ingenuity of many performers. Like his older contemporary, Walton enjoyed recording and invariably secured exhilarating results in the studio. His long-standing relationship with EMI is celebrated here with three discs which include some memorable performances that were digitally remastered in 1994. The Philharmonia Orchestra is in excellent form in the 1951 recording of the First Symphony, though the sound remains disappointingly constricted by comparison with the wonderfully wide dynamic range of the 1959 Belshazzar’s Feast, which features some marvellously penetrating singing from the Philharmonia Chorus.

The earliest recording is that of the 1946 excerpts from the Henry V film music with Laurence Olivier declaiming various speeches in suitably stentorian tones. Although there’s some inevitable duplication of material in the Henry V Suite arranged by Muir Mathieson which Walton recorded in 1963, aficionados of Walton’s film music will want this disc for the sheer physical excitement that is projected in the Spitfire Prelude and Fugue and the battle scenes and fanfares from the Shakespeare films.

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Regrettably the only postwar orchestral work which Walton recorded was the Partita composed for George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra in 1958. Although Szell’s recording of the work supersedes Walton’s 1959 performance with the Philharmonia in terms of brilliance of execution, the composer still manages to impart a great sense of fun in the outer movements, and the orchestra sounds as if it is enjoying itself enormously. The Partita provides an admirable foil for the more overtly Romantic Violin and Viola Concertos, which are played with languorous affection by Yehudi Menuhin – classic performances from the late Sixties that remain peerless despite fearsome competition from more recent interpreters.