WALTON: Symphony No. 1 / Partita (Brian Culverhouse/ English Northern Philharmonia/ Paul Daniel) (Naxos: 8.553180)
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William Walton (1902-1982)
Symphony No.1 in B flat minor Partita
William Walton occupies his own position in English music of the twentieth century, chronologically between the generation of Vaughan Williams and Gustav Holst and that of Benjamin Britten. Born in Oldham in 1902, the son of a local singing teacher and choirmaster, he became a chorister at Christ Church, Oxford, and followed this with admission to the university at the early age of sixteen. His Oxford career brought success in music but failure in the necessary academic tests to allow him a degree. At the same time his friendship with Sacheverell Sitwell led to his adoption by the three Sitwell children, Osbert, Edith and Sacheverell, as an honorary brother. The practical help of the Sitwells, and the musical and cultural influences of their circle, allowed Walton to devote his attention to composition in the years after he left Oxford, followed by increasing independence, as he won a wider reputation for himself and a satisfactory income from music for the cinema and from a generous bequest by Mrs Samuel Courtauld. In the years after the war he was to some exent eclipsed by Britten, whose facility he lacked and whose contemporary achievement now seemed to outweigh Walton's successes of the 1930s. His marriage in 1948 to Susana Gil Passo, whom he had met in Buenos Aires at a conference of the Performing Rights Society, was followed by a move to the island of Ischia in the Bay of Naples, continuing an association with Italy that had started in the early days of his friendship with the Sitwells and had continued in subsequent years. He died there in March 1983.
In the period between the wars Walton won a succès de scandale with Façade, a collaboration with Edith Sitwell that amused the cognoscenti and shocked wider audiences, before winning an assured if minor position in twentieth century repertoire in its final form. His oratorio Belshazzar's Feast, with a text derived by Osbert Sitwell from the Bible, first performed at the Leeds Festival in 1931, was a significant addition to choral repertoire, while the Viola Concerto of 1929 marks a height of lyrical achievement, influenced as it apparently is by Prokofiev. The first of his two symphonies was eventually completed in 1935 and his Violin Concerto in 1939. The popular film music of the war years was followed after the war by the operas Troilus and Cressida and the one-act Tchekov extravaganza, The Bear, Variations on a Theme by Hindemith and Improvisations on an Impromptu by Benjamin Britten, the Cello Concerto and the Second Symphony.
The first of Walton's two symphonies was completed in 1935. In 1929 he had met and fallen in love with the young widow, Baroness Imma von Doernberg and by the beginning of 1931 he was living with her at Ascona in Switzerland. This was the period of his final work on Belshazzar's Feast, for the 1931 Leeds Festival, and of Lionel Tertis's change of heart and performance of the Viola Concerto, after his dismay at the alleged coldness of Hindernith's first performance of the work. Work on the symphony began in earnest in early 1932, when he was staying with friends in England, including Sacheverell Sitwell and his wife. January 1932 brought news of a legacy from Mrs Samuel Courtauld that would now ensure him a measure of independence from the generosity of friends, of Siegfried Sassoon and the Sitwells. The progress of the symphony was interrupted by the illness of Imma von Doernberg in Switzerland, where he returned in May, continuing work there as the year went on, but postponing the date of a first performance that he had agreed with Sir Hamilton Harty for Apri11933. Harty himself thought that the relationship with Imma von Doernberg was delaying Walton's progress on the symphony, but by the early months of 1933 he had completed the first and second movements and was able to play them through to friends in London, including Hubert Foss, who urged him again to use a theme he had played to Foss and his friends in improvisation in October 1931 and that Walton had originally tried to use at a faster speed for the opening of the first movement. Work on the slow movement continued during the summer of 1933, with a start made on the finale. Composition of this last movement proceeded hesitantly, and announced first performances of the whole symphony, planned for March 1934, had to be postponed. Among other obstacles, Walton's intense personal relationship with Imma von Doernberg had ended when she tell him for the fashionable doctor Tibor Csato, later husband of Diana Wynyard. He now found some comfort in the warm friendship of an older woman, Lady Wimbourne, whose disapproval later alienated Walton from the Sitwells for many years, but delay in work on the symphony was now caused by the acceptance of a commission for his first film-score, Escape Me Never, suggesting a relatively easy source of future income. In any event the first three movements of the symphony were given their first public performance by Sir Hamilton Harty with the orchestra that he now directed, the London Symphony Orchestra, on 3rd December 1934.
As always, Walton continued to seek advice from his friends on the difficulties that the last movement of the symphony was causing him. Finally he had the idea of writing a fugue and now work progressed more smoothly so that by the end of August 1935 the movement was complete. The first performance of the whole symphony was given by the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Sir Hamilton Harty on 6th November that year, the whole work generally well received, although there was some difference of opinion over the new movement, which Walton himself thought the best. The symphony, dedicated to Imma von Doernberg, had occupied Walton intermittently for nearly four years, its progress impeded by events in his personal life and by his own failure of inspiration, from whatever cause, and hesitations. Now, however, it took its place as a momentous achievement in English music, securing Walton's position as an established composer.
The powerful first movement starts with an evocative horn-call and the plaintive sound of the oboe, over urgent string rhythms. There is mounting intensity as the music gathers strength, with the oboe motif holding continuing importance, its emotional power off-set by moments of more lyrical relaxation. Walton entertained the idea, at one time, of leaving the Allegro assai as a one-movement symphony in itself, and it has in itself a compelling unity that has led some to draw comparisons with Sibelius, comparisons that Walton himself rejected. The second movement scherzo, marked Presto con malizia (Presto with malice), has angular off-beat thematic material, fragment, pressing onward, over inisistent accompanying rhythms, punctuated by percussive outbursts. The slow movement, now more correctly marked Andante con malinconia, starts with a melancholy flute melody, extended as the continuing melodic line carries the music, forward, with all its depth of poignancy, to an emotional climax, then proceeding to a hushed conclusion. The finale opens Walton's familiar triumphant style, moving on to the energetic fugue, the inclusion of which is, after all, in accord with classical practice. It adds enough weight to the content of the movement, orchestrated for additional percussion, and provides a very positive and convincing conclusion that carries and, balances the weight of the earlier movements.
In 1955 Walton was invited by Georg Szell to write a work for the fortieth season of the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra. The request, extended to nine other composers was a token of Szells championship of Walton,