LSO/Gardiner – Walton (30 November)

Crown Imperial – Coronation March
Viola Concerto
Belshazzar’s Feast

Paul Silverthorne (viola)

Christopher Maltman (baritone)

London Symphony Chorus

London Symphony Orchestra
Sir John Eliot Gardiner

Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: 30 November, 2003
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Amongst William Walton’s many gifts was the ability to ’tap in’ to the national conscience and provide stirring – but never condescending – music for great state occasions. The two coronations which occurred during his adult life drew from him an apt response, capturing their grandeur and significance in a way which Elgar before him managed; but although Walton has had many imitators (a fact which may well have surprised him), he has had, as yet, no successors.

Crown Imperial, written for the 1937 coronation, is firmly modelled on Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance marches, in that brisk, martial-like music surrounds a melody of dignified nobility. Sir John Eliot Gardiner attended to the dynamic markings with commendable care, but these felt artificially grafted on, instead of being a natural feature of the music itself. Interestingly, the initial tempo was well below the given metronome mark, but this allowed the details of the scoring – particularly the woodwind – to emerge with unusual clarity. The final statement of the ’big tune’ was suitably grandiose, with the organ providing appropriate buttressing.

The performance of the Viola Concerto was not altogether satisfying. I am unsure as to the extent of Gardiner’s experience in this repertoire, but he did not always project confident direction in a score that is littered with awkward pitfalls for all involved. One admired the sheer professionalism of the LSO – its playing was first-rate throughout the concert – in keeping things on track.

The opening music, which often returns, was rather lumpy in phrasing, instead of having an easeful lilt. It also seemed much too loud – this opening should be gentle with ideas gradually emerging and developing. The central section had a healthy vigour about it – as did the equivalent passages in the other movements – with some splendidly ripe horns and forthright articulation from the orchestra as a whole.

Nervous energy should also characterise the second movement – a scherzo in all but name – which has an important performing direction: ’preciso’. Precision of execution was not a feature of this performance. In the third and longest of the movements, a suitable tempo was set, but the exposed bassoon at the outset was not ideally poised, and the movement as a whole felt unusually disjointed, with solo and tutti passages seemingly unconnected with each other. One also felt a want of sheer passion at the orchestral climax before the coda.

Paul Silverthorne did not seem totally at ease, though he undoubtedly produced some admirably secure high notes (a feature of this concerto), and expressive phrasing, when given the space to do so. There was almost a sense of two performances going on, which did no-one any favours – least of all the composer. Walton himself was a fine conductor of his own works and a perceptive commentator on their performance. Writing to Malcolm Arnold about a recording of Belshazzar’s Feast, he is quite clear: “Conductors never seem to realise that in B(elshazzar’s) F(east) there is no need to add to the excitement – on the contrary, it should be kept on a very tight rein, otherwise it becomes a shambles…” and, referring to the specific performance: “the speed in other places completely defeats its object”.

Whilst Gardiner’s performance was by no means a shambles, it was extremely fast, and there were undoubtedly places where the tempos certainly did not add to the excitement. It was also very loud – even in those passages where a hushed response is required, such as the chorus’s “By the waters of Babylon”, which the cellos and basses began at a healthy mezzo-forte, rather than the prescribed piano; and the chorus was too robust in sound for the pp marking.

Right at the start, one admired the clarity of the tenors’ and basses’ words. Gardiner had clearly insisted upon the text being scrupulously voiced. Indeed, the chorus throughout was consistently full-throated, but seemed to run out of steam towards the end, which was not surprising given the level of volume it was constantly required to produce and the rapid speeds it had to maintain.

Of course, the faster music and march praising the gods had momentum all its own, but with just a notch less freneticism, the impact would have been all the more effective.

Christopher Maltman was not in his best form, in this taxing solo part. There were problems of articulation and interpreting Walton’s directions appropriately. His unaccompanied recitative, marked ’robusto’ was anything but, with some fussy and mannered phrasing, quite at odds with what is intended.

However, Walton’s youthful exuberance carried the day, and we were certainly left breathless – as, no doubt, was the LSO Chorus – if not always for the right reasons.

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