Friday, 21 October 2011

CD Reviews (The Straits Times, October 2011)

WALTON Symphonies Nos.1 & 2
Orchestre National de Lille
BIS SACD-1646 / *****

The two masterly symphonies of Sir William Walton (1902-1983) have never been performed in Singapore, which is really our loss. The sprawling First Symphony (1931-35), which runs for over 43 minutes, takes Edward Elgar as its model in scope and conception. The monolithic first movement is a massive crescendo on a single theme, contrasted by a wickedly witty Scherzo that follows, marked Presto con malizia (with malice!).

The much more compact Second Symphony (1957-60), at 27 minutes, gives the impression of strident dissonance but is no more modern than a Bernstein dance score. To complete its connection with tradition, the finale is an impressive passacaglia (where echoes of Brahms’s Fourth Symphony come to mind) capped with a fugue.

The glory of both works lie in opulent orchestration and the slow movements. Here Walton stamps his credentials as a melodist par excellence, where heart-on-sleeve emotions weigh as heavily as his penchant for dramatic effect. The film scores of Hollywood can be said to have borrowed heavily from Walton, especially in the Second Symphony’s Lento assai. The French orchestral forces under Welsh conductor Orwain Arwel Hughes give the English a run for their money in these excellently produced recordings.

Monte-Carlo Philharmonic / Yakov Kreizberg
Decca 478 2684 / ****1/2

It is refreshing to see younger musicians eschewing showy display for its own sake to perform works of a more contemplative works stripped of the usual fireworks. This anthology of fantasies for violin and orchestra by German starlet Julia Fischer is the perfect antidote to tiring technical callisthenics. Ottorino Respighi’s Poema Autumnale shares a similar pastoral spirit with Ralph Vaughan Williams’s A Lark Ascending, where a wistful melodic theme rises ever so gently into nether realms without so much as breaking into virtuosic sweat.

The influence of Wagner and Dvorak pervades Josef Suk’s 25-minute-long Fantasy, a freely rhapsodic single-movement work that is his violin concerto in all but name. There is even an agitated segment that comes directly out of the Forging Scene from Siegfried. Also aligned with Teutonic inspirations is Ernest Chausson’s Po√®me, arguably the best known work here, where the unity and tautness of motifs recurring in cyclic form is a legacy from Cesar Franck. Fischer crafts a gorgeous tone, complemented by lush orchestral backing, a poignant tribute to the late Russian conductor Yakov Kreizberg in his last recording. Warmly recommended.

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