Improvisations on an Impromptu of Benjamin Britten
Paul Watkins (cello)
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Recorded September 2013 (Improvisations) & October 2014 at Watford Colosseum, Hertfordshire, England
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: April 2015
CD No: CHANDOS CHSA 5153 [CD/SACD]
Duration: 70 minutes
William Walton’s Second Symphony, first played in 1960 by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic and John Pritchard – and soon taken up by George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra for a famous CBS recording – was not well received initially, blighted it seems by critical ignorance in that some expected another First Symphony and failed to realise that the composer had moved on stylistically after twenty-five years. It’s a three-movement masterpiece of peerless invention and structural rigour, brilliantly scored and a thrill every time.
Certainly here, for Edward Gardner and the BBC Symphony Orchestra turn in a dazzling performance that snakes and glints its way through the first movement yet turns on a sixpence for the sweetly lyrical passages. The lovely and longing slow movement, warmly painted yet elusive if showing heartier feelings as things become more emotionally heated, is most considerately and fluidly handled, and the finale, ostensibly a passacaglia with elements of fugato and introduced by stentorian brass, is full of creation and commentary before Walton wraps things up with breathtaking energy and command.
The languorous, wistful and ingenious Cello Concerto was first given in 1957 by Gregor Piatigorsky with the Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by Charles Munch, and soon after they recorded it for RCA alongside Bloch’s Schelomo. Of Walton’s three string-instrument Concertos, this for cello is underrated, yet is full of melody, colour and inimitable personality. Paul Watkins enjoys its caprice and gives a dazzling account of the mercurial second movement. In the ambitious ‘Tema ed improvvisazioni’ finale, two of the sections being for orchestra alone, Watkins and Gardner typically keep the music flowing while ensuring that the composer’s fancy and eloquent feelings are fully revealed. It’s a splendid performance, as shapely, deft and believed-in as required; and, what’s more, the recorded balance is ideally natural, allowing the so-important orchestra to reach the ear unencumbered, Watkins heard as if from the best concert-hall seat.
First-performed in January 1970 by the San Francisco Symphony and Josef Krips, the Improvisations on Britten – the Impromptu of the title being the revised third movement of his Piano Concerto – finds Walton in typically skilful and imaginative form, combing the source tune for witty, delicate and vibrant extensions – and, at the close, some giocoso, too – beguiling and exhilarating the listener and here given a sensitive and scintillating outing by the BBCSO and Gardner.
This is the second volume of Gardner’s Walton series, following CHSA 5136, a notable coupling of Symphony 1 and Violin Concerto (Tasmin Little). Presumably a third will follow, to cover the Viola Concerto and, hopefully, those wonderful overtures – Portsmouth Point, Scapino, Johannesburg Festival – and pieces like the Capriccio burlesco and Hindemith Variations. Riches indeed!