Alsop and the LSO play Walton – 27 January

Capriccio burlesco
In Honour of the City of London
Walton/Christopher Palmer
Henry V – A Shakespeare Scenario

Samuel West (narrator)
London Symphony Chorus
London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marin Alsop

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 27 January, 2002
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Walton’s genius for rhythmic and harmonic unity, his compositional sleight-of-hand and his ability to suggest mood, character and location with the merest brushstroke will, I’m certain, survive the critical gaze that will attend his music in this centenary period (he was born on 29 March).

That said, his score for Olivier’s film of “Henry V” didn’t quite pass the test at this concert. Though, lest we forget, this ’scenario’ is not of Walton’s creating. The late Christopher Palmer’s well-intentioned concert version, made after Walton’s death, is perhaps too ambitious, sixty-four minutes in this performance, which palled for no appreciable reason. There’s probably not a speech too many although it seemed so despite Sam West’s personable delivery, which was not quite magnetic or galvanising enough.

There certainly wasn’t a dud musical phrase in the whole, except that some sections come round too often; this flattens the circular design that seems required to make the enterprise work. Marin Alsop might though have moved things on a little, not least the Agincourt battle music, which was curiously ineffective. Aside from the scene depicting the encamped armies at night – Walton suggesting infinite darkness so tellingly – the finest moments were the two classic pieces for strings – ’The Death of Falstaff’ and ’Touch her Soft Lips and Part’ – eloquent and deeply felt, very slow, beautifully played and emotionally sustained.

Capriccio burlesco, written for the New York Philharmonic and Andre Kostelanetz in 1968, is hardly light music as claimed by the programme notes. It is though lightly scored, inimitably so, every transparent gesture and colour unmistakably from Walton’s pen – and it needed to move a tad faster. Although Alsop was attentive to chiaroscuro, more elan and greater rhythmic agility was needed; in other words a little more time getting a defter response from a slightly cautious-sounding LSO would have been beneficial by a few, crucial degrees. Capriccio burlesco needs to appear airborne; here it sounded a tad earthbound.

The concert’s highlight was In Honour of the City of London. Written in 1937 to a text by Dunbar – although the words may be somebody else’s – Walton’s jubilant setting lifted off the page in the most electrifying way. Not surprisingly, given it was only a few years old then, there are many echoes of Belshazzar’s Feast – and I think it’s a safe bet that Walton knew Vaughan Williams’s Tudor Portraits! – but with tremendous choral singing and a conductor revelling in the sweep and glory of the music, In Honour goes down as the first piece of reclaimed Walton in, this, his celebratory year.

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