Listening without prejudice: Walton, Moeran and Elgar - composers who were passed over by fashion, but whose time has come

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The Independent Culture
As a musical era slips away into the past, the claims and counter- claims of its composers, the significance of fashions and tastes, appear increasingly insignificant. It becomes possible to view the music in broader perspective, taking it on its own terms. Now, it's a matter of astonishment that a change of fashion kept many of J S Bach's younger contemporaries from seeing that he was creating a string of overwhelming masterpieces. Droll, too, to think that advanced taste of Wagner's time found Brahms and Schumann academic and outmoded.

In our own times there have been particularly fascinating instances where taste and fashion have been out of step with what worthwhile composers were creating - the result of a time-warp that isolated us from Continental developments and forced us, after the Second World War, to catch up with 50 years of music history at an unnatural speed. Then, we could hear a composer like Moeran writing in a style that would hardly have been forward-looking in the 1920s, while Walton was beginning to sound anachronistic alongside the developing European avant- garde. Conservative critics gave them support they could perhaps have done without by railing against the era's more modern developments, while others undervalued their achievement. Only in recent years have we been able to listen without historical prejudice.

Both composers' cello concertos were performed last week. Listening to the Moeran concerto in a rare and rather fine performance by Raphael Wallfisch and the Young Musicians Symphony Orchestra under James Blair, one was struck by the freshness of the structural invention, a vital characteristic that was presumably obscured in the work's early days by the outdated musical vocabulary. The formal concision, with its elliptical transitions and statements, strikes an engagingly new note.

In the same Barbican concert we heard an excellent performance of Elgar's First Symphony, a work that also ran foul of post-war critical trends, and of Walton's Crown Imperial, which critics found a depressing reincarnation of Elgar's pomp and circumstantial manner. Elgar has had to wait till our own time before being accepted as the visionary he undoubtedly is, instead of being drubbed for hymning Edwardian imperialism - a piece of pseudo-sociological nonsense that has little to do with the heart of his music.

The case for Walton's output is more tangled. After producing a body of work in the 1930s that was thought to show the way forward for British music, he became for the post-war critical establishment a further example of musical isolationism. The situation was compounded by his withdrawal into a suaver, less tensioned utterance. By the time his Cello Concerto appeared in 1956, it was clear his language was not to develop in the way many wanted it to. But it's the value judgements of those times that now sound dated; if the Cello Concerto disappoints in any respect, it is not to do with its conservatism of style, rather with Walton's unwillingness or inability to stretch himself intellectually and emotionally. Played passionately by Misha Maisky with Ashkenazy and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, in a Festival Hall concert devoted to the composer, we can relish what Walton was capable of in later years: a masterly reworking of characteristic ideas with just enough garnishing to prevent self-pastiche.

Still, the lack of urgency is highlighted by the oddly structured finale, which inevitably leaves an unfocused impression. The tremendous final paragraphs of the earlier Belshazzar's Feast show what it was that Walton subsequently lost - the passionate will to pursue an argument beyond the bounds of an acceptable symmetry. That work was splendidly projected by the bass John Connell and a superbly vitalised Brighton Festival Chorus.

If Walton's music did not prove the basis for a native British modern school, neither do the anachronisms for which some later damned it matter to modern ears. The longer view allows us to see in Walton a composer of individuality and power who deserves his fair share of our orchestras' time.