Walton: The Symphonies - Hughes

Walton: The Symphonies - Hughes


Stereo/Multichannel Hybrid

Classical - Orchestral

William Walton: Symphony No. 1, Symphony No. 2

Orchestre National de Lille
Owain Arwel Hughes (conductor)

Rarely appearing together on disc, William Walton's two symphonies are separated by some 25 years. The First Symphony was composed after his dazzling early success, beginning with Façade and culminating in two scores written before Walton reached the age of thirty: the Viola Concerto and the oratorio Belshazzar's Feast. After this, composition became more difficult, and progress on the symphony was tortuous and protracted. Nevertheless, the work has a strikingly positive tone - perhaps in celebration of the victory over the many demons and difficulties that had attended its creation.

Twenty-two years later, in 1957, the musical world was a very different place, but Walton's response was not to seek solace in reflective nostalgia. It is rather as if he conceived the Second Symphony as a follow-up to his terse and bubbly Partita for orchestra, building on the confidence that the success of that score had given the always self-doubting composer. Owain Arwel Hughes, who conducts the present recording, first made his name with an electrifying televised performance of Walton's Belshazzar's Feast which received a notable accolade from the composer.

During his distinguished career Hughes has recorded a number of discs for BIS, including a complete cycles of the 13 symphonies of Vagn Holmboe. In the French magazine Répertoire his 3-disc series of Rachmaninov's symphonies was described as 'the great modern Rachmaninov cycle', while the reviewer in International Record Review stated that 'Hughes is the first conductor to convince me that the First Symphony is on a par with its two successors.' On this recording he brings Walton across the English Channel and conducts one of the leading French orchestras, Orchestre national de Lille, for their first appearance on the BIS label.

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PCM recording
Reviews (2)

Review by John Miller - July 25, 2010

William Walton was born on 29th March 1902, in Oldham, an industrial mill town in Lancashire, north-west England. As a fellow Lancastrian, I'm delighted to see this disc's cover photograph is of Blackpool Pier - a seaside resort on the Lancashire coast to which the mill-workers and owners alike flocked during the annual summer holiday, known as "Wakes Week". As a child, Walton would most likely have been taken there.

His father was director of the local church choir, and at the age of 10 young William found himself a chorister of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford University, where he later become an undergraduate. Drinking in the latest contemporary music, studying scores whenever possible, he began writing music himself. Despite not completing his degree, his music gained the approval of Vaughan Williams and Hubert Parry. Leaving university, an Oxford friend, the poet Sacheverell Sitwell, invited him to live at the Sitwell house in London, where the mill-town lad unexpectedly entered London High Society.

The jazzy, 20's style "entertainment" Façade, written for the Sitwells, began a series of masterly compositions, including a string quartet played at Salzburg, the witty overture Portsmouth Point, the Viola Concerto for Hindemith and in 1931 the dramatic Leeds Festival oratorio Belshazzar’s Feast. Pressure was on the young composer for a symphony, which he began with great confidence in 1932, but it soon faltered, in a period where he lost one lover but gained another. These two women, in one way or another, inspired him. The finally completed symphony was premièred intact with its finale in 1935; he was hailed as a successor, and he joined the ranks of other active English symphonists such as Bax, Moeran, Vaughan Williams, Lloyd and Dyson.

Cardiff-born Owain Arwel Hughes first came to my attention in a stunning televised performance of Belshazzar's Feast, which met with Walton's warm approval. A frequent recording star for BIS, he is teamed here with the Orchestre National de Lille, one of France's top-rank orchestras. The recordings were set down in October 2008 at the Auditorium du Nouveau Siècle in Lille.

My first task with this disc was to establish a suitable playing volume. The First Symphony begins with a distant, misty drum roll (ppp - and one of the few performances to really play it at that dynamic), over which a propulsive ostinato is generated on the strings, overlain by a hushed oboe solo. This sequence immediately reveals Walton's aquisition and digestion of the style of his hero, Sibelius, even down to the melody's long held notes ending with a shake or turn, a Sibelius fingerprint. The journey through Walton's epic landscape of burgeoning confidence and looming conflict in this first movement is very well played and portrayed by Hughes and his players, with bouncing rhythms and artfully drawn out tension.

In tempo and pacing, Hughes is close to Walton's own 1951 recording (indeed, most of the available recordings do not stray very far from the composer's example). As in Walton's performances, the Lille players almost have to claw their way up to the final stamped out resolution of the movement. However, their big climaxes seem to lack some weight compared with the fine recordings of Previn and Mackerras - the reason mostly seeming to be the shy French string basses, which are barely audible much of the time, giving a rather bright balance.

The second movement of Symphony no.1 is a remarkable scherzo, uniquely marked "Presto con malizia". Sir Adrian Boult recorded the First Symphony in 1956 and was asked to conduct it at a Promenade concert shortly afterwards. He refused, saying that he couldn't handle any more malice! While some think that the piece should be rendered as vicious and malevolent, the score to my mind doesn't really suggest that "malizia" should be taken literally. I think that this title is part of Walton's dry, po-faced Lancashire humour. The movement is certainly uproariously and disruptively playful, with alternating 3/4 and 5/4 metres to keep the orchestra off-foot, Like Previn, Owain Arwel Hughes recognises its frequent relaxation spots, like a bad-tempered argument which lapses from time to time. It is certainly technically brilliant and the Lille orchestra are sure exponents. Once again though, their basses are put to shame by Mackerras's, whose eruptive gruff string bass section give truly vivid, petulant replies to frequent short, sharp explosions from the timpani.

In the lovely Andante con malinconia (notice Walton's sly use of two terms with the Latin root of "mal-" (bad) for his inner movements), the already typically excellent BIS recording seems to gain a little more ambience (in multichannel, particularly), and also warmth, as the basses now have a much deeper foundation in the ensemble. Owain Arwel Hughes' sure direction here produces a wonderful sound from the sweet French flutes, musing over gently-pulsing muted horns. The movement has fluent ever-shifting moods and rhythms, shot through with dark passions and sweeping romances. These converge in an anguished crisis of Mahlerian intensity, to ebb softly away. A lovely reading, indeed.

In the fourth movement, Walton bursts into his 'Crown Imperial' mood, a "Big Skies" opening with a brilliant and ebullient surge, impressively relayed by the Lille players. The arrival of a fugue seems entirely natural in this semi-formal format; the cellos and basses now digging in nicely here, and the big brass enjoy their jazzy syncopations, giving them plenty of snap. Tam-tam, drums and upwards running clarinet scales provoke a final glorious cacophony of triumphal noises for an exciting conclusion.

The Second Symphony sadly has notably fewer recordings than the first. 22 years after his first Symphony, Walton joyfully began the Second, as an add-on to his recently completed and masterly Partita for orchestra, dedicated to Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra. In a cogent three-movement work, he effectively surveys the new sound-scape of 1957, making comments in his own inimitable fashion. Writing from the haven of his self-imposed exile, he asks for a much bigger orchestra, with bass clarinet, contra-bassoon, tuba, 4 percussionists (military drum, tenor drum, bass drum, cymbals, glockenspiel, vibraphone, xylophone, tambourine, tuned bell in D), 2 harps, piano and celesta, all added to the standard instrumental complement for the First Symphony.

BIS clearly needed a different microphone set-up for this much larger orchestra, and this time achieved spectacular results. In multichannel, much more of the Auditorium du Nouveau Siècle's ambience is heard, all the better for the bigger sound to expand into. The sound-stage is both wider and deeper, with more sharply focussed instrument and section location. This brings a very noticeably extended deep bass, with powerful support from the string basses, a floor-shaking bass drum and a magnificently resonant tam-tam. The two harps are clearly placed, as are the piano and celeste. BIS' engineers have produced a spectacular demonstration-worthy recording of the virtuosic Second Symphony, and the players too are clearly inspired.

From the first movement Allegro molto, with its mordant wit and dazzling tossing to and fro of snappy motivic fragments from instrument to instrument all across the stage, through a ravishingly played and nuanced Lento assai oozing with combined romanticism, impressionism and modernism (conjuring shades of Messiaen), to an assertive and brilliantly inventive Passacaglia which raises an irreverent thumb to Schoenberg in its muscle-flexing theme - this is a superbly played Second Symphony. It has no peers in recording quality, and for me it easily stands against the classic recordings of Previn and Mackerras.

SACD users have little choice as yet for Walton Symphonies. Colin Davis' First, Walton: Symphony No. 1 - Davis, (without a make-weight) is for me ruled out by a lack of bloom and tonal allure in the LSO Live close-up scrutiny. All this is sucked out by the dessication of the Barbican hall which makes listening an onerous pleasure, however fine the performance might have been live. The new BIS disc has a very good First (with some reservations) which I would have rated at four stars each for sonics and performance, in comparison with the superb Second Symphony, to which I would award full marks for both parameters. Both symphonies are enjoyable as a set, but the disc is worth acquiring just for the marvellous Second Symphony alone, and its sound, one of BIS' best recordings.

Copyright © 2010 John Miller and


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Review by Mark Novak - October 21, 2010

It’s nice to have both of Walton’s symphonies on a single SACD. The first symphony has long been a favorite of mine. It was completed over a four year span of time indicating Walton’s struggle with the symphonic medium. Conductor Owain Arwel Hughes seems to have the score down cold and makes every attempt to draw out a substantial performance from the Orchestre National de Lille. He is only intermittently successful. I sense the orchestra struggling to deliver the goods at times throughout these performances. It’s too bad that a more mainstream English orchestra familiar with Walton’s music wasn’t employed for this recording. The tuning of the winds is suspect in a couple of places but not so prevalent to be a major distraction. I would put the overall result for the first symphony below that of Vernon Handley on EMI and about on par with Litton on Decca of the others I have in my collection (I also fondly recall a Chandos recording by Alexander Gibson that I don’t seem to have any longer). Quite respectable but less than the best I’ve heard

The performance of the second symphony is more convincing than that of the first. Once again, Hughes coaxes a dramatic and effective performance from the Lille orchestra and they seem to respond better here. On the other hand, this symphony is less likable than the first and really needs a dynamic performance to hold its own. The wind playing here gets better tuning and the percussion battery is prominent and well performed (especially in the bone-jarring climax of the second movement). The note writer for this release likens the Walton second to “a distant echo of Beethoven’s feisty Eighth Symphony”. Distant indeed – I fail to see any similarities between the two. If I had to make a comparison, I’d liken it more to Vaughan Williams 4th symphony from 20 years earlier.

The sonics are somewhat less than ideal. It sounds to me like lots of microphones were employed resulting in a “hi-fi-ish” sound rather than that of a natural orchestra in a real space. The recording was done in the Auditorium du Nouveau Siecle in Lille (perhaps this is the normal performing hall for the Lille orchestra) and the sound engineer is someone I’ve not encountered before in a BIS release (Stephen Reh). The overall average level of the recording is a bit low requiring a boost in the volume knob to get realistic playback. I do find that the low end foundation is quite satisfying and, in general, instrument tonalities seem pretty good. But the overall sonic canvas is rather two dimensional compared to many other BIS SACD’s (I listened to the stereo SACD tracks through a synthesized rear channel set-up). Dynamics are quite good – just listen to the orchestral explosion near the end of the third movement of Symphony No.2 to see what I mean.

Recommended with just the few caveats mentioned above.

Copyright © 2010 Mark Novak and


Sonics (Stereo):

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