Walton: Symphonies, Martyn Brabbins, BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra

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Sir William Walton is perhaps best known as a composer for his theatrical work, Facade, and a fine Viola Concerto. I’ve always been partial to his Symphony No. 2, which turned up for me in a graduate seminar and then in a recording from Vladimir Ashkenazy. It turns up again on this attention-getting release, paired with Walton’s other Symphony.

Some words about these compositions first: Symphony No. 1 is very much a work of compositional craft, with all the strengths and weaknesses. It follows symphonic structure impeccably, develops its ideas in a clear and logical method, and is finely orchestrated. It also feels dutiful, doing things because that’s how they are supposed to be done, substituting workmanship – very fine workmanship – for conviction. Like much of the Brahms first symphony, it sounds like the work of a composer who feels he is obligated to write a piece rather than desiring to write it.

Symphony No. 2 is altogether different, and brilliant. Again, Walton’s craft is superb, everything fits together and makes sense. The difference is that this work is inspired by his desire and his imagination. The first movement may follow sonata form, but rather than creating a melodic line, developing variations of it an emphasizing the modulation to different keys, Walton creates a mysterious gesture, a rising and falling fragment in the winds and strings, supplemented by three chords in the piano. Instead of working with standard materials, he’s using motion, energy and atmosphere. Where the Andante con malinconia movement in the first symphony is dull, the Lento Assai in the second is lovely and heartfelt. The closing Passacaglia, like the opening movement, makes great structural use of surprising material, the variations are developed to the point where they seem extremely far removed from the opening phrase yet solidly of a piece with it. It’s one of the most interesting, unique and successful 20th century symphonies.

With these explanations and caveats in mind, it’s now time to point out that this is a great recording. The conviction Brabbins and the orchestra bring to the music makes the first symphony into a truly involving, satisfying listen. They play it as if it is one of the finest symphonies around, and that’s how it sounds. This is a case study in musical advocacy. There is a pleasant, palate cleansing short work, Siesta, and then the Symphony No. 2 explodes out of the speakers with a knife’s edge of expression. It’s music that combines traditional craft with a personal sense of experimentation with new ideas and methods, and the energy and drive and skill of the players is as good as you’ll hear. This is a real triumph, not just as a set of music from a worthy composer, but as an argument for why we play music – because we believe in it. Highly recommended, and a highlight of the year so far.

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