Symphony No.1 in B-flat minor
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra
Recorded 13 & 14 October 2016 at Lighthouse, Poole, Dorset, England
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: January 2018
CD No: ONYX 4168
Duration: 74 minutes
Well done to Kirill Karabits for conducting William Walton’s music, here his masterly if very different two Symphonies, the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra in very responsive form, although the recording quality, for all its clarity and vividness, tends to be over-edgy and too bright, and the acoustic is rather reverberant, slightly occluding the mightiest fortissimos and also filling silences.
So, it says much for Karabits’s conception of the magnificent First Symphony – a stunning masterpiece – that it outdoes any sonic problems. Indeed, this is a thrilling performance, the first movement (beginning with a slight tweak to the timpani writing, forte-diminuendo rather than ominous quiet, an arresting touch) is driven and impassioned, tension unrelenting (this is technically challenging and emotionally draining music), and structured by Karabits to a momentous coda. The Scherzo (following too soon in the post-production edit, in fact this is an annoyance between each movement of both works) is fast enough for Presto but maybe not quite malicious enough (to match the marked malizia), but there is plenty of bite and attack, although those passages I look for to be just-so certainly come off well. The slow movement is a well-judged Andante, full of sad sentiments and simmering anxiety that grow to a fervent climax, sensitively and heatedly distilled by the Bournemouth players; and the Finale – which the composer found the most problematical to sign-off, enough to delay the premiere of the complete piece – is, like the first movement here, white-hot in impulse, the musicians giving their all.
Twenty-five years later, in 1960, when Walton’s Second Symphony was unveiled (he’d taken his time, the commission had arrived in 1957), some critics were taken aback that he had not emulated his epic First, and failed to allow that stylistically he had moved on (as Elliott Carter and Michael Tippett were also doing). The three-movement No.2 may be concise (and certainly rigorous) but it is packed with compelling ideas and Walton’s powers of orchestration are no less virtuosic, arguably more so. Unfortunately Karabits is less successful, in the first movement anyway, which is under the Allegro molto tempo, the music dragging and short of the life-force that it does have. Compensations include clean articulation and clarity of detail (if a bit shrill at times, exacerbated by the acoustic), but the emotional content is played-down and doesn’t compare with, say, Brabbins (Hyperion), Gardner (Chandos), let alone Szell’s classic version (CBS/Sony). The languorous slow movement is well done, however, fully Lento and very expressive, and the ingeniously designed ‘Passacaglia’ Finale – embracing variations, fugue and a sizzling coda – works a treat, if though a little careful at times. However, the sound is even more strident in No.2, in the loudest measures, and it’s something of a trial to listen; that said, Karabits’s account of the First Symphony has strong claims on all Waltonians.