Notes and Editorial Reviews
Symphony No. 1. Violin Concerto
William Boughton, cond; Kurt Nikkanen (vn); New Haven SO
NIMBUS NI 6119 (79:28)
This is apparently the first in a series of recordings of Walton’s music that will originate in New Haven, taking advantage of the availability of the world’s largest archive of Walton’s original manuscripts. I wasn’t aware that there were any significant textual problems in Walton’s scores, so I don’t know how useful the series, if it continues, will be, but I am glad that it is off to such
a good start. Who would have imagined such a thing 50 years ago when Walton was considered irrelevant and washed up? Evidently quality will out. The Violin Concerto was written at the behest of Jascha Heifetz, who pestered Walton to increase its difficulties, apparently with some success. Heifetz made two excellent recordings of the piece, on 78s with Eugene Goosens and later, on LP, with Walton himself. Except for lacking a certain brightness on top, these recordings still sound pretty good and Heifetz tosses off the piece’s difficulties with no apparent compromise. He also gets excellent podium support. One of the delights of this concerto is the by-play between the busy soloist and the orchestra. Of the recordings I had access to, this characteristic is particularly clear on Decca’s Tasmin Little/Andrew Litton performance and this one, by Kurt Nikkanen and William Boughton. Whereas Decca almost surely accomplished this by microphonic legerdemain, Nimbus seems to have managed it by moving Nikkanen back from the mikes, in effect making him the first among equals rather than bathing him in a sonic spotlight. Despite Heifetz’s urgings, the piece is playable and Nikkanen is in command of the pyrotechnics and never gets drowned out by the orchestra. Heifetz/Goosens, Heifetz/Walton, Little/Litton, Nikkanen/Boughton—those are my favorites among several very good ones. I understand that Walton was pleased by Kyung-Wha Chung’s recording but I was unable to obtain a copy; I remember being impressed when it first appeared on LP.
Can there be such a thing as a piece that revels in its own cleverness? I suppose not, but Walton’s First Symphony is a brilliant, exuberant piece that never fails to please me. My favorite recordings are the more animated ones that emphasize its nervous energy and power (it’s quite loud at times): the two Waltons (both are monaural), the first Previn, and Leonard Slatkin’s. Just after them comes a batch of very good ones, say, Davis, Rattle, Mackerras, Litton, Otaka, Handley 2, Leaper, and this new one by Boughton. In what is an orchestral showpiece, the New Haven Symphony Orchestra holds its own, despite the fact that the ensemble’s only other studio recording was Frank Brieff’s Mahler First Symphony, issued back in 1968, the first recording to incorporate the “Blumine” movement. I wish the strings had just a bit more power; I don’t know if the orchestra has a comparatively small string section or whether it is just a peculiarity of the production. If you like the performance, it isn’t going to be a problem the way it is on Boult’s old Westminster/Nixa recording (recently reissued on the First Hand label). On the other hand, the timpani are a welcome presence and the brass are well balanced. I might wish for a more animated first movement but one appreciates the recording’s detail and dynamic range. Some may wish Boughton had whipped up the second movement more, but Walton marked it
Presto, con malizia
and I believe that Boughton’s tempo brings out the “malizia” that Walton wished for in a way that the more flashy renderings do not. The third movement (
Andante con malinconia
), likewise, comes off beautifully. Walton apparently wanted it done faster, if one may judge by his recordings, but most conductors seem to agree with Boughton. The last movement is marked
Maestoso—Allegro, brioso ed ardenemente—Vivacissimo—Maestoso
. Boughton gets the
all right but most of his approach to this brilliant movement strikes me as methodical. Granted, the conductors who tear into it do end up with some blurred passagework, but I think the general effect is exhilarating enough to be worth it; Boughton’s orchestra articulates these passages clearly and Boughton apparently takes great pains to balance the sections. This is a good thing in itself and some listeners may prefer it that way. The annotations, which include a few samples of Walton’s manuscripts, are detailed and certainly appropriate for such a project. It will be interesting to follow this new Walton series and I wish it luck.
FANFARE: James Miller
Works on This Recording
Concerto for Violin in B minor by Sir William Walton
Kurt Nikkanen (Violin)
New Haven Symphony Orchestra
Period: 20th Century
Written: 1938-1939; England
Date of Recording: 09/17/2009
Venue: "Fred Plaut Recording Studio"
Length: 32 Minutes 12 Secs.
Symphony no 1 in B flat minor by Sir William Walton
New Haven Symphony Orchestra
Period: 20th Century
Written: 1932-1935; England
Date of Recording: 05/14/2009
Venue: Woolsey Hall, New Haven, Connecticut, US
Length: 46 Minutes 6 Secs.
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