Walton: Symphony No. 1 (Symphony Studies No. 5 of 118)

by Glenn on August 8, 2015

Since I just listened to a recording André Previn made with the London Symphony Orchestra of a work that I was very familiar with because of a later recording he made with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, I thought I would listen to another recording André Previn made with the London Symphony Orchestra of a work that I am familiar with because of a later recording he made with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.

There are a number of desert island recordings I own that feature Previn and the RPO and I just figured out why.

Among the requirements from my undergraduate studies in music that I am most grateful for was a concert attendance requirement. Several times a semester (I can’t remember how many exactly) you were to attend and report on a concert by professional musicians. The Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, the then home of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, was just a 35-40 minute drive from Azusa and the LA Phil offered “student rush” tickets, which meant that any seats available one hour before the program were sold to students with I.D. for $5.00. So this was my venue of choice.

Four of us attended on Friday, 6 November 1987 to hear the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, which was followed after the intermission by William Walton’s Symphony No. 1 in B flat minor.

We did go to hear the Tchaikovsky. It was the work that drew me to classical music and two of my fellow students played the violin. But this was the night that introduced me to William Walton’s music. We had second row seats and the only notes about the symphony I have from this evening say, “The Walton Symphony was loud.” (It looks like I wrote in hindsight a month or so later.)

But this concert made a strong impression. I remember a moment during the Tchaikovsky where I saw André Previn, the conductor, put up a finger to signal a change and it appeared that many of the players missed it because the accompaniment got untidy for the briefest moment. It was the first time I noticed that a classical concert didn’t appear to be on auto-pilot, that there was active communication and, apparently, miscommunication going on between conductor and orchestra.

My other impression from the night relates to the pre-concert lecture (by Gail Eichenthal, if the program is correct), where we learned that Previn had distinguished himself in England as an American proponent of Walton’s music, with praise from Walton himself, and was a great one to feature the work in Los Angeles.

We also learned that Walton struggled with the fourth movement. The first three movements had been composed and performed before the fourth movement had been written, so that critics like to debate whether or not the fourth movement is really part of this symphony. Walton solved his fourth movement problem with a fugue and I’m not sure how much you can protest the inclusion of the fourth movement when Walton himself conducted on a recording that includes it. My feeling is that the fourth movement follows and unfolds quite naturally.

In the spring and fall of 1987, Previn conducted four of the Los Angeles Philharmonic concerts I attended. I don’t think I ever considered how much of an impression he made as a conductor to the extent that I would have sought out his recordings.

A couple of things I learned about the work from the chapter by Michael Steinberg. First, Walton’s music is linked to Jean Sibelius’s:

“Walton’s early music is in every way far from Sibelius, but his move toward the grand and serious statement [the musical statement of a symphony] had meant, among other things, a move toward the Finnish master. Sibelius’s concept of symphony is insistently present here, as are some of the techniques through which he realized his ideas.” This is interesting. I know very little of Sibelius’s symphonic output, so it will be interesting to explore some of those connections.

Second, Walton’s music is his own. Even with connections to Sibelius, Steinberg believes,

“Walton’s Symphony No. 1 is a free, strong, individual utterance, as far beyond imitation as, say, the Brahms First is in its relationship to Beethoven. Not many would wish to call Walton one of the great twentieth-century composers, but the claim that his First Symphony is one of the great twentieth-century symphonies is not excessive.”

This recording by André Previn and the London Symphony Orchestra is fabulous.

James Leonard, in a review of Previn’s later recording of this work with the Royal Philharmonic, made these comments about this LSO recording:

“At the time, André Previn’s 1967 recording of William Walton’s Symphony No. 1 in B flat major with the London Symphony Orchestra on RCA was an enormous revelation for American audiences. Prior to that, the Symphony was the exclusive province of English conductors and while none of them could tame its furious anger, assuage its bottomless sadness, or dim its magnificent finale, none of them seemed able to put the piece across to an American audience. But Previn’s superbly played and superbly recorded performance — with its inexorable malevolence, unrelieved melancholy, and unrestrained joy — established the work for American audiences as one of the great English symphonies and one of the great symphonies of the 1930s.”

Leonard goes on to recommend the LSO recording over the RPO. I concur. While I’m not sure which of Previn’s recordings of Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony I prefer, with Walton, there is no doubt that Previn’s first outing eclipses his later.

I love the second movement, especially. Wow, the LSO plays with such raw power. Biting. Urgent.

The LSO really shines in the last movement. So clean. It’s fun to contemplate how much John Williams must have been influenced by Walton’s writing and orchestration.

This symphony, completed in 1935, is at the trailing edge for me of the symphony as a pleasurable listening experience. In the twentieth century, composers really struggled with where to take the symphony. The height of symphonic creation for me is with Mahler. But I enjoy this one. Walton keeps enough tonality to keep me engaged with the actual music rather than ideas about music, but clearly he stretches tonality and meter beyond where Mahler took it.