Walton: Belshazzar’s Feast; Symphony No. 1

WORKS: Belshazzar’s Feast; Symphony No. 1
PERFORMER: Donald McIntyre (baritone); choirs, BBC SO, RPO/William Walton
CATALOGUE NO: BBCL 4097-2 ADD mono/stereo

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I remember Walton once mischievously describing the job of conducting his First Symphony as ‘money for old rope’. Well, if this is old rope, more of it, please. The playing isn’t as polished as Walton’s 1951 EMI Philharmonia recording, but it’s edge-of-the-seat stuff, with controlled malice in the scherzo, a plangent slow movement, and a hell-for-leather finale. On the other hand, Walton reminds us that musical excitement in Belshazzar’s Feast isn’t dependent on speed, keeping his responsive forces on a tight rhythmic leash, with McIntyre an ideally focused soloist. Most of the other Walton CD consists of pieces that he didn’t record commercially, with Fournier an unexpected (and very forwardly recorded) soloist in the Cello Concerto: his sound and musicality are aristocratic and distinguished, but his intonation sometimes falls short of the ideal. And there are a few wobbly corners in the Hindemith Variations, recorded at their 1963 premiere, but that’s balanced by the excitement of everyone discovering one of Walton’s finest pieces for the first time. The Barbirolli disc also contains some works new to the conductor’s discography, though not Vaughan Williams’s Eighth Symphony, more expansive and settled than in its premiere recording. Barbirolli’s arrangement expands Bax’s Oboe Quintet into a genuine concerto, eloquently played by his wife, and the shorter items have charm (Delius), East-End insouciance (Rawsthorne) and ceremonial pomp (Walton), with the bonus of Ferrier singing Land of Hope and Glory in 1951. Why isn’t Beecham’s reputation in the German classics higher? His Brahms from the 1956 Edinburgh Festival is fresh and natural, not least in its sure rubato and internal balance, and the beautifully phrased wind-playing (Dennis Brain on first horn). And he brings swagger to the finale, and depth of feeling to the Adagio. The Beethoven gives him more of a chance to show his wit, but dig beneath it and you’ll find a concern with structure and tempo relationships – the turn of the corner into the first movement Allegro, or the limping false starts in the coda of the finale – that make you understand why Furtwängler respected him. You may have to make a few technical allowances with these CDs, but that’s a small price to pay – music comes alive when it’s live.