Hickox conducts Walton – 2nd March

Photograph of William Walton

Sonata for Strings
A Song for the Lord Mayor’s Table
The Bear

Dame Felicity Lott (soprano)
Pamela Helen Stephen (mezzo-soprano)
Stephan Loges (baritone)
Christopher Purves (bass)
City of London Sinfonia conducted by Richard Hickox

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 2 March, 2002
Venue: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

Even is his centenary year, a concert of late Walton might be deemed a throwing-down of the gauntlet given the composer’s post-war output has long been under the shadow of his more illustrious younger self. Yet Walton, compositionally-speaking, was never a groundbreaker, and if his later works seem to favour stylistic retrenchment to an increasing degree, their intrinsic qualities are readily apparent and worth bringing to attention on an occasion such as this.

Certainly The Bear, an intriguing blend of off-the-wall humour and methodical wit as seen through the lens of experience, should have had far greater profile in the Walton canon. Completed in 1967 for the Aldeburgh Festival that year, this one-act ’extravaganza’ on an all-too-sobering Chekhov farce is the perfect vehicle for synthesising the panache of Façade with the seamless fluency of the later music. And seamless is an apt word for the way in which Paul Dehn’s libretto compresses the original into a rapid succession of solos and dialogues, set by Walton in a sequence of recitatives and ariosi whose vocal refinement is complemented by the sparkling virtuosity of the orchestration. A variety of allusions to other works and composers pass across the 45-minute score, making the piece a compendium of human comedy through the ages.

Pamela Helen Stephen was choice casting as the widow Popova, her none-too-repressed sexuality evident in the rapid swings between shrewishness and supplication with which she confronts the desperate requests – initially monetary – for fulfilment of landowner Smirnov, sympathetically taken by Stephan Loges. Their unwitting realisation of mutual love, as they prepare to fight a duel, was heart-rendingly funny, and Christopher Purves added to the tone of serious farce as the bovine and long-suffering servant Luka. The City of London Sinfonia met the challenges of the score with relish. The Bear deserves frequent revival – how about Lennox Berkeley’s A Dinner Engagement or Hindemith’s The Long Christmas Dinner for a double-bill?

In the first half, Richard Hickox gave a spry, well-drilled rendering of the Sonata for Strings, Walton’s not wholly convincing 1971 arrangement of his emotionally taciturn A minor string quartet from 1947. Odd that this consummately professional but often dutiful-sounding piece received one of the warmest responses among the composer’s later work. No doubts, however, about the efficacy of the 1970 orchestration of A Song for the Lord Mayor’s Table – originally written with piano eight years earlier and a beautifully-judged sequence of verse depicting London in guises majesty and bawdy. Good too to have Felicity Lott in such responsive voice, savouring the imagery and emotion of each setting with relaxed enjoyment. A quality that later Walton possesses in abundance!

  • Richard Hickox and the City of London Sinfonia have recorded the Sonata for Strings and A Song for the Lord Mayor’s Table (Jill Gomez) – the former for EMI, on CDM 5 66761 2, the latter for Chandos, on CHAN 8824
  • Richard Hickox and the Northern Sinfonia have recorded The Bear – CHAN 9245
  • www.chandos-records.com

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