WORKS: Improvisations on an Impromptu of Benjamin Britten; Cello Concerto; Symphony No. 2
PERFORMER: Paul Watkins (cello); BBC Symphony Orchestra/Edward Gardner
CATALOGUE NO: CHSA 5153 (hybrid CD/SACD)
If a new Walton release can finally put paid to the notion that his music somehow ‘went off’ after his move to the Italian island of Ischia in 1956, then this must be it. And the performances of these late-ish works are on a level that have you wishing that the composer had lived to hear them. The needlepoint orchestral precision required by the Second Symphony is seriously demanding: George Szell’s 1961 recording with the Cleveland Orchestra set a standard in this respect that remains exceptional. Yet Edward Gardner and the BBC Symphony Orchestra match them as near as makes no difference, while also searching out much more of the work’s range of expression, memorably so in the slow movement’s dark-toned emotionalism.
The Britten Improvisations is a late work, based on the slow-movement theme of Britten’s Piano Concerto, to which Walton responded with a variation sequence that’s beautifully deft and inventive. Perhaps Paul Watkins’s way with the Cello Concerto’s opening melody is a touch matter of fact? In every other department his mellow tone, un-hectoring manner, and capacity for darting virtuosity suit the music to near-perfection; and he succeeds in sustaining atmosphere and argument through the two unaccompanied solo variations in the finale’s sequence, something difficult to bring off in a recording without a live concert situation to help. All this is captured in ultra-clear recorded sound, with just the right amount of surrounding resonance; Watkins is placed a little forward in relation to the orchestra, but not by enough to irritate.