Nash Ensemble Concert (Illuminations) – 17th January

Sonata for violin and piano
Passacaglia for solo cello
Anon in Love
Piano Quartet
A Song for the Lord Mayor’s Table
Henry V (Chamber group orchestration by Edward Watson)

Claron McFadden (soprano)
Paul Agnew (tenor)
Joss Ackland (narrator)
Craig Ogden (guitar)
Marianne Thorsen (violin)
Lawrence Power (viola)
Paul Watkins (cello)
Ian Brown (piano)
The Nash Ensemble conducted by Lionel Friend

Reviewed by: David Wordsworth

Reviewed: 17 January, 2002
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

For another of its “Les Illuminations” concerts, the Nash’s spotlight for this extended evening fell on Sir William Walton. The Walton centenary celebrations – the day itself being 29 March – began in earnest with this enterprising programme that focused on an area of Walton’s output that is all-too-rarely explored, chamber music and songs.

Though unquestionably great, the large-scale orchestral works show only one side of the many that this remarkable composer had. Though Walton’s anniversary has already witnessed some ill-thought sniping in some areas of the press, this concert was a reminder, if one was needed, that Walton’s music is capable of standing alongside the very best.

Marianne Thorsen and Ian Brown made the strongest possible case for the Sonata for violin and piano. I cannot understand why this work is not played more often. It’s long, languid melodies, capricious mood changes and melancholic heart are a gift to any violinist worth their salt. Thorsen is worth far more than that. She brought sure command to the second movement’s pyrotechnics, a ’Theme and Variations’, and to the bittersweet lyricism of the opening ’Allegro tranquillo’. Walton often expressed his frustration at writing effectively for the piano. Ian Brown (who was an unruffled presence throughout the evening, heaven only knows how many notes he had to play!) made Walton’s ability as convincing as possible.

Towards the end of his life, composition became more and more difficult for Walton and he was able to produce only a few pieces; what might be regarded as shavings from a master’s workshop. The fact is though, as Paul Watkins ably demonstrated, that in something like the brief Passacaglia written in the early ’eighties for Rostropovich, Walton could pack more into five minutes than most other composers.

Anon in Love did not keep up the high standard of music or performance. Walton, to this writer’s ears at least, was probably least successful as a songwriter. His choice of texts – or in this case a sequence of six feeble Elizabethan poems recommended by Christopher Hassall – was never that inspired and the first song in this cycle shows an overwhelming debt to Britten. That Anon in Love was written for Peter Pears perhaps doesn’t help; if the mannerisms were intentional they feel just a little too close for comfort. When not being Brittenesque, the guitar accompaniments (for Julian Bream) often resort to the ’vamp ’til ready’ style, which is not suitable for this sort of text. Paul Agnew and Craig Ogden appeared terribly unprepared – that they kept together seemed due more to good luck than good management. Walton is in the habit of setting many melodic and rhythmic traps for the unwary – surprisingly both of these fine artists fell victim to them; I would have much preferred Walton’s wonderful guitar Bagatelles, which I know Ogden plays brilliantly.

And so to the extraordinary Piano Quartet. Extraordinary because it was written when Walton was in his late teens and shows the young composer open to a whole collection of influences. Quite how many of these supposed persuasions Walton would actually have been under at such an age is unclear; he was rather disparaging about his musical education. Whatever he had heard by 1919 doesn’t alter the confidence and sheer bravura that is on display in this work. In the first movement, Faure peeps through occasionally; also perhaps the fine chamber works of Herbert Howells that had some success in their day. The secondmovement scherzo is the nearest that comes to the mature Walton – syncopated rhythms and fast downward sequences. The slow movement is a breathtakingly beautiful Ravelian soundscape – atmospheric harmonics, the strings exchanging quiet pizzicato figures. As Lewis Foreman wrote in his excellent programme notes: “we can almost see the new-born sunlight glintingon the dew”. The last movement is the most bizarre of all, Vaughan Williams meets Bartok, with what later became a Waltonian fingerprint, a ’fake fugue’ at the movement’s mid-point. How this stylistic hotchpotch hangs together is a mystery – but it does, particularly in such an exuberant, witty and spirited performance as this one by Marianne Thorsen, Lawrence Power, Paul Watkins and Ian Brown. Hugely enjoyable.

A Song for the Lord Mayor’s Table is another song-cycle, originally composed in 1962 for the inspirational partnership of Elizabeth Schwarzkopf and Gerald Moore. Again Christopher Hassall chose the poems for Walton, with more success this time – Blake and Wordsworth are included – although the last song to an anonymous text, basically an arrangement of ’Oranges and Lemons’, seems a cop-out. The soprano’s line is almost operatic in scope with widely leaping intervals that require firm control and clear diction. Claron McFadden certainly had command of the words, though I was less sure about the notes. From a singer who I’ve heard negotiate Tippett and Birtwistle to great effect, this must have been due to lack of familiarity. Walton again had problems with the piano accompaniment; this time, despite Ian Brown’s valiant efforts, one must look to Walton’s more effective orchestration made in 1970.

One doesn’t often find film music played in the Wigmore Hall. An ensemble of eleven players under Lionel Friend with actor Joss Ackland squeezed on to the platform to give us the late Christopher Palmer’s “A Shakespeare Scenario” from Walton’s music to Laurence Olivier’s 1944 film of ’Henry V’. The musichad in fact undergone another transformation, for this was Edward Watson’s arrangement of Palmer’s arrangement of Walton – are you keeping up?

Although Walton was rather dismissive of his film music, Olivier was quoted “… if it was not for [Walton’s] music, Henry V would not have been the success it was”. Walton’s uncanny ability to match sound with image, conjuring up Shakespearean England and the plains of France, still shone through in this performance, albeit, despite Watson’s clever adaptation for piano and harpsichord, wind, horn and trumpet, two cellos and percussion, one missed the magic of the original score’s superb orchestration. The ’battle scene’ arranged for small forces just doesn’t work, while the heart-stopping ’Touch her soft lips and part’ with the string parts re-distributed to wind instruments lost its way completely. Joss Ackland, looking more like King Lear than Prince Hal, threw himself into the enterprise with admirable gusto; ultimately, although an imaginative and interesting idea, it failed.

As part of the South Bank’s Walton celebrations, several films for which Walton wrote the music are being shown; anyone needing convincing of Walton’s genius in this genre should go see them.

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