Walton: Symphony No. 1 in B flat minor; Symphony No. 2

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WORKS: Symphony No. 1 in B flat minor; Symphony No. 2
PERFORMER: RPO/Vladimir Ashkenazy
Playing these two symphonies back to back is as good a way as any of demonstrating the difference between Walton’s pre- and post-war music. Where No. 1 is full of pent-up aggression (attributed to an unsuccessful love affair, but also highly characteristic of 1930s angst), No. 2 is far more relaxed and genial. Ashkenazy seems well attuned to the sultry lyricism of the 1960 work, and gives a fine account of the shadowy slow movement in particular. In the opening movement and the final passacaglia (on a 12-note theme), the RPO players excel themselves without quite convincing me that this undeniably well-crafted piece has very much to say. The First Symphony, moreover, needs more bite than it receives here if it is to hit its mark. The extraordinarily tense first movement never quite recovers from an opening which is fractionally too slow; the Scherzo ‘con malizia’ is similarly careful rather than thrilling. Compare the slow procession which follows with the more searching Mackerras performance (EMI) and one is left with an overall impression of a lack of tension – a fault from which the optimistic finale can’t rescue even the finest performances of this work. Stephen Maddock