Double Play / A good enough Feast: THE WALTON EDITION Yehudi Menuhin, Laurence Olivier, Philharmonia Orchestra, etc / Sir William Walton (EMI CHS 5 65003 2; four CDs)

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The Independent Culture
EMI's Elgar Edition convinced many what a lucky few knew already: that Elgar was a uniquely eloquent, powerful and perceptive interpreter of his own music. Can EMI do the same for Walton? My feelings are more mixed this time. There are compelling things here, no question - the First Symphony, the two big ceremonial overtures, Portsmouth Point, the Partita for Orchestra - and there's a Belshazzar's Feast which, if it doesn't blaze as ferociously as some in the brutally exultant final hymn, wrings more pathos from the lamenting sections ('If I forget thee', 'The trumpeters and pipers are silent') than any other version I know.

But it isn't all on this level. You've only to compare the Henry V Suite with extracts from the film score itself (with speeches read by Olivier) to realise the difference between the good and the truly inspired Walton. The former is enjoyable, the latter riveting. And if I hadn't known that the 1940 Wise Virgins was conducted by the composer, would there have been anything in it to grab my attention? I don't think so: it sounds competent, shapely, but not deeply engage. And the recordings of the Violin and Viola Concertos with Menuhin caused a fair bit of critical agonising: yes, there are moments of deep expressive insight, but Menuhin's technical unsteadiness gets more worrying as each work progresses - especially, paradoxically, when he's on his instrumental home-ground in the Violin Concerto.

I'm glad I heard it all, though. There's very little of it that isn't at least enjoyable (unless you're politically allergic to the Waltonian pomp and circumstance of Crown Imperial and Orb and Sceptre) and the transfers are excellent: I don't remember hearing the opening choral harmonies of Belshazzar's Feast half so clearly on my old LP, and the First Symphony is virtually reborn. It's almost worth having the set for that alone. Rarely has the Symphony sounded so emotionally rounded: where others have gone straight for the burn, Walton persuades his music to reveal its troubled heart - the slow movement is a real emotional unburdening (truly con malinconia). And Walton's response to the alleged 'finale problem' is to show that it's only there if you look for it - the coda is truly conclusive, and perhaps a little darker than conventional interpretation would have it. This at least is required listening.

Stephen Johnson

COLOURFUL flags buffeted by the breeze, cheering crowds, an air of celebration and the general bustle of men and women at play - all spring spontaneously to mind as Sir William Walton strikes up the band. However, there's also a deeper, more thoughtful perspective to Walton's art, one that's vividly exemplified in the bludgeoning resolve of the First Symphony's opening Allegro assai, the mellow textures of the Viola Concerto's outer movements and that incomparably poignant moment when, roughly three- quarters of the way through the Violin Concerto's Andante tranquillo, the soloist embellishes the principal theme. These and many moments like them exhibit an originality of invention and bittersweet lyricism that run even Prokofiev pretty close, while the carefree swagger and melodic distinctiveness of Crown Imperial recall parallel qualities in Elgar's Pomp and Circumstance marches.

Walton was a master craftsman whose relatively small output utilised the choicest materials, and his interpretations of his own works are, in the main, admirably self- respectful. Others may have brought greater panache to Belshazzar's Feast (not least Walton himself, in an earlier recording) and, while EMI's remarkable new digital transfer makes the excellent 1951 First Symphony performance sound many times better than it did on LP, Andre Previn's thrilling 1966 LSO version remains unchallenged.

The rest is mostly memorable, with an occasionally fallible Lord Menuhin bringing considerable expressive intensity to the Violin and Viola Concertos, although memories of Jascha Heifetz (in the former) and William Primrose (in the latter) - both currently available in earlier composer-conducted recordings - still serve as humbling yardsticks.

The endearingly madcap Facade suites are brilliantly characterised, while the somewhat passe re-workings of Bach cantata movements that make up Walton's The Wise Virgins are reasonably well played by the Sadler's Wells Orchestra. Comparing 'Sheep May Safely Graze' in that wartime recording with its superior Philharmonia successor (indexed on a separate track) makes one grateful that the bulk of this worthy enterprise was undertaken by the finest British orchestra of the period.

Quite apart from the keen but relaxed virtuosity displayed in such outgoing pieces as Portsmouth Point, the Partita, the Johannesburg Festival Overture, the Spitfire Prelude and Fugue and the two big marches, there are notably sympathetic renditions of Walton's film music for Richard III, Hamlet and Henry V, the last of which is represented twice - first by a stereo version of the Suite and then, best of all, by an older sequence of excerpts with Lord Olivier.

This, for me at least, provides EMI's regal Walton Edition with a suitable crown: indelible Shakespearian declamation set to a highly distinguished and wholly appropriate musical backdrop. Add the attractive presentation, informative booklet notes and generous disc timings, and you have the basis of a desirable but somewhat over-priced recommendation.