William Walton’s Two Symphonies [BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra/Martyn Brabbins; Hyperion; Double Review]

0 of 5 stars

Symphony No.1 in B flat minor
Symphony No.2

BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra
Martyn Brabbins

Recorded 20 & 21 November and 4 & 5 December 2010 in City Halls, Candleriggs, Glasgow

Reviewed by: Ben Hogwood & David Wordsworth

Reviewed: August 2011
Duration: 78 minutes



Ben Hogwood writes… It is surprising how few recordings there are of William Walton’s two symphonies on the same disc – an omission rectified by this handsomely presented Hyperion release, featuring the famous portrait of the composer by Michael Ayrton on its cover. There is room for a flagship digital recording of the great First Symphony, popular though its recorded history may be – and Martyn Brabbins can justifiably lay claim to having made it. This is an exhilarating performance that fully harnesses the energy of the piece, helped greatly by judicious tempo choices. Brabbins keeps the music pushing forward; not by choosing excessively fast speeds but by pressing on when others might be tempted to slow up. This does not make the music relentless; rather it emphasises its essential rhythmic drive and purpose. Brabbins is supported in his cause by truly excellent playing from the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, not least brass and timpani, the former drilled and incisive, the latter adding important depth. The ‘malicious’ scherzo is particularly fleet of foot and has rarely sounded so good on record and fair leaps out of the speakers. The first movement, too, is exceptionally well-judged, the atmospheric start laying the groundwork for the rhythmic motifs to gradually impose themselves. Nor does Brabbins dwell in the ‘melancholic slow movement, yet finds a real depth of feeling, passionately performed as if in one long phrase. The finale is thrilling, the massive string and brass statements carrying impressive weight as they trade off with rolling timpani. The end, when it comes, is a victory well-won.

There is also an extremely satisfying account of the Second Symphony, showing off its unusual but rich orchestral colours. The piano and vibraphone are ideally placed in the mix, making themselves heard in accompaniment to the dominant, bittersweet theme of the first movement, which Brabbins ensures is beautifully shaped, its angular lines strange yet logical. His speeds are slightly slower than André Previn, but as in the First Symphony there is a strong sense of progression, with the syncopated rhythmic trajectory generating considerable energy. The composition of the Second caused Walton considerable strife, and that is evident in the subtext, not least in the alarming outburst that tears the second movement apart. Despite the building tension in the previous pages Brabbins puts full emphasis on this, making it a real shock. The finale is resolute, its twelve-note structure borne through some impressive flourishes, with a touching aside on muted strings and a powerful fugato, its restless melodies harnessed by Brabbins for maximum power.

Bisecting the two symphonies is the charming Siesta, affectionately played with the violin and cello duet its standout melody. In each of the three works Martyn Brabbins shows a keen understanding of Walton’s writing, able to shape structures large and small in a way that suggests further discs of the composer’s orchestral music from this source will be very welcome. For now, though, this is a winning disc of William Walton’s two symphonies.

<David Wordsworth writes… These are performances worthy to stand alongside the very best I have ever heard of these wonderful works, either recorded or in the concert hall. A big claim, but I’m convinced that this is the case – and I have heard many accounts of these pieces, some very disappointing. Martyn Brabbins doesn’t fall into the familiar Walton trap of just playing everything as loud and as fast as possible, thinking that that will ‘do the trick’ – this happens in Belshazzar’s Feast so often, as well as the symphonies – those devilish string parts just become a mad scramble and the brass players sound exhausted after the first few pages. Here, tempos are well-nigh-perfect; balance and dynamics are carefully managed (Brabbins employs antiphonal violins) and it proves the point that every one of those notes (of which there are many that are frequently glossed over) is essential to make the sound that only Walton can make.

The impressive points are too numerous to mention, But to be particularly admired in the First Symphony is the way that the grinding climaxes are held back so that they don’t become over-powering – until they need to be – and also the tight control Brabbins has on rhythmic drive. The scherzo, whilst perhaps not ‘con malizia’ enough, manages to be crystal-clear, unpredictable and nervous (hats off the timpanist!); again the energy is all the more impressive for being of the controlled kind. The slow movement more than lives up to the marking of Andante con malinconia; more than that it’s pretty devastating, the flute solo (beautifully played) left clinging on in despair at the end. The finale, often criticised as a ‘cop-out’, is here a convincing summation of all that has gone before.

The Second Symphony, in contrast to the First, was poorly received in 1960 – critics saying it was nothing like the First (which is true, but it’s a rather bizarre reaction given that 25 years had elapsed and Walton had moved on as a creator). As Michael Kennedy points out in his excellent booklet note, this piece is streets-ahead of its predecessor from a technical point of view and perhaps more elusive (certainly with none of the brashness). It is the creation of a more-stable and -experienced composer. In this recording the music glitters brilliantly, revealing the deft touches of instrumentation that the score tells us are there but are rarely heard – this is as much a concerto for orchestra as it is the designated Symphony. The wind soloists of the BBC Scottish SO shine in the first movement – Brabbins managing wonderfully the mix of confidence, bitterness and frustration and not since the classic decades-old George Szell recording have I heard the Mediterranean longing of the slow movement come across so effectively. The finale’s pompous twelve-tone theme paves the way for a typically ingenious set of variations, all given their own sparkling character and the sort of jazzy fugato that only Walton could get away with!

In between the two symphonies comes the slight but charming Siesta – bittersweet Walton, with a glint in his eye, and treated here with the same care and attention to detail. This is a triumph for the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and Martyn Brabbins – helped in no small part by producer Andrew Keener and recording engineer Simon Eadon. It’s the coupling and the performances I’ve been waiting for. No lover of twentieth-century orchestral music – whether Waltonians or not – should hesitate to acquire this superb and revealing release.

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