Walton: Symphony No. 1; Violin Concerto; Cello Concerto; Viola Concerto; Sinfonia concertante

COMPOSERS: Walton
LABELS: RCA Red Seal
WORKS: Symphony No. 1; Violin Concerto; Cello Concerto; Viola Concerto; Sinfonia concertante
PERFORMER: Jascha Heifetz (violin), Yuri Bashmet (viola), Gregor Piatigorsky (cello), Kathryn Stott (piano); LSO/André Previn, Philharmonia Orchestra/William Walton, RPO/Vernon Handley, Boston SO/Charles Münch
CATALOGUE NO: 74321 92575 2 ADD/DDD mono/stereo Reissue (1950-94)
Wall-to-wall Walton? There’s been plenty of it around in centenary year, but listening to so much on these six CDs has quashed ready-made phrases about a first-rate second-rank composer and compelled engagement with a singular personality. True, there are more cribs than homages to composers like Ravel and Prokofiev, and Walton occasionally falls back too readily on harmonic or rhythmic tricks and manners. Yet the earlier scores compel by the force of his energetic individuality, while the post-war orchestral works challenge you to discover their secrets.

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Weighing in at two discs to Decca’s four, RCA’s promise of ‘collected works’ is clearly a non-starter. This looks like a hastily assembled rag-bag of performances. Curiously the only work not to be reduplicated on Decca’s handsomer ‘centenary edition’, the original version of the Sinfonia concertante drawn from a rejected ballet score for Diaghilev, has the worst recording; an entertainment which needs to be steely bright misfires when Handley and the RPO flounder in an echo-chamber behind pianist Kathryn Stott. For the rest, the Decca consistency of Litton and the Bournemouth Symphony provides surprisingly strong competition, with closer teamwork between soloists and orchestra providing a match for RCA’s Bashmet/Previn Viola Concerto as well as surpassing dedicatee Piatigorsky in the Cello Concerto. Only Tasmin Little, as responsive to Litton’s partnership as viola-player Neubauer or cellist Cohen, can’t hope to come close to the supernatural volatility of Heifetz as partnered by Walton. Previn’s 1966 First Symphony also has classic status, but Litton offers different virtues – tight and never too blatant where Previn’s LSO maintains lurid high-tension but betrays an occasional looseness of ensemble.

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Moving on to essential territory not covered by RCA, the glistening Decca sound caresses the full-orchestral Façade numbers as well as the subtleties of the Second Symphony and Hindemith Variations, indispensable performances both. Litton’s Belshazzar has been rightly praised, with Bryn Terfel as the most nuanced of all baritones, but what you gain in dramatic Winchester Cathedral reverberation around excellent choral clamour you lose in the brazen march of all marches; the Te Deum, recorded several years earlier in the same venue, has more focus. Still, all you could want is here, though enterprising newcomers to Walton might pick and mix interpretations by Rattle, Kennedy and Szell.