Hickox and the Philharmonia play Walton – 23 March

Henry V – Suite (arr. Muir Mathieson)
Violin Concerto
Symphony No.2

Joshua Bell (violin)
Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Richard Hickox

Reviewed by: Bill Newman

Reviewed: 23 March, 2002
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

Three television cameras were stationed in the Stalls for the third of four Philharmonia Orchestra concerts devoted to Sir William Walton with the gallant and gifted Richard Hickox who has coaxed some wonderful interpretations from one of our finest orchestras during this Walton Series.

Muir Mathieson’s suite of five numbers from Walton’s music for Olivier’s 1944 film of Henry V makes rousing claims on our attention. It is surprising how direct and straightforward the material appears in the score, and how effective and meaningful he makes it sound by his natural skill as a superb orchestrator. A little further down the Thames is Shakespeare’s reconstructed Globe Playhouse. A sense of ’almost being there’ lent expectancy to the proceedings. There is something Beethovenian about the poignant Passacaglia – ’Death of Falstaff’ – that undercuts festivities. Passing memories of past times enjoyed to the full that brought forth some glorious harmonisation from violas and cellos in a beautifully poised rendition.

The famous ’Charge and Battle’ never fails to conjure up the picture of archers awaiting the descent of their monarch’s sword. It also revealed the prowess of the Philharmonia’s horns with their spot-on quasi-recitatives. As battle commences, I notice that Walton employs the same quaver-grace note repeated motive (cellos/basses) that Prokofiev uses in ’Battle on the Ice’ from Alexander Nevsky. Yet Walton’s dieaway is quite different, featuring a cor anglais solo based on a French folk song. ’Touch her soft lips and part’ enjoys truly lovely scoring for strings.

I have to try and blot out Jascha Heifetz’s two recordings of the concerto written for him (especially the first one with Goossens). On the live front, the only performances to equal the work’s dedicatee are by two wonderful ladies – Camilla Wicks and Ida Haendel. The first is on a Simax CD, the other a London concert when Sir Charles Mackerras accompanied Haendel. (Haendel has recorded Walton’s Violin Concerto with Paavo Berglund for EMI.)

Every note of the solo part should sound crystal clear; phrases should be articulated very accurately from the score’s dynamics. A tall order, maybe, especially with such variety of moods, but it is possible. Joshua Bell’s Decca recording has enhanced his reputation with some critics, but I heard nothing here to commend his playing to me beyond some ardent portamento-shaping of certain languorous sections, and realisation of high notes. Much of it was played at half tone, unclear in fast cadenza-like passages – except for first and last notes in phrases – with an absence of dynamic extremes through over-concentrating on the work’s sweeter qualities. The second movement particularly, which ranges from stretches of rubato languor to outbursts of bizarre viciousness, lacked contrast. Remembering Alfredo Campoli’s remarkable rendering, the outward effects of music breaking loose from its shackles requires a much stronger line of argument overall. The high water mark of the ’Finale’ is the consistency of build-up in the solo line, the music rising to held fortissimos (figs 80-81), with added strength at 83-84. On this occasion, it had me guessing. The orchestral backing tended towards discretion.

There certainly wasn’t anything discrete about the Second Symphony, a far cry from the music’s initial cool reception in the days of John Pritchard and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic (who premiered the work) and Malcolm Sargent and the BBCSO. George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra brought new accolades to its composer through their stunning recording of the Second (just reissued on Sony), and Leopold Stokowski and the LSO gave it international stature in Vienna in the mid-sixties.

This very distinguished Philharmonia performance should do much to create fresh recognition for the expertise of Walton’s craftsmanship and the glories of his instrumental colourings. The piece is a late product of what British music should still be all about. It is a challenge to every instrumental principal, particularly the writing for combined winds; also the solos for horn during the close of the sumptuous middle movement and the variation writing in the ’Finale’. The Second Symphony stands as a tribute to fine players who respect fine music when they perform it. I hope the future leans more kindly towards a work overshadowed by its illustrious predecessor.

To send us all home feeling glad to be alive, Walton’s ’Spitfire’ Prelude and Fugue came as a welcome bonus.

  • This concert is broadcast tonight, 25 March, on BBC Radio 3 at 7.30 Click here to Listen on-line
  • The Philharmonia Orchestra completes its Walton Series with Troilus and Cressida conducted by Richard Hickox this Thursday, 28 March, at 7.30p.m
  • RFH Box Office: 020 7960 4201 www.rfh.org.uk
  • Philharmonia Orchestra Box Office: 020 7242 0240 www.philharmonia.co.uk

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