Tasmin Little (violin), Bournemouth SO / Andrew Litton
(Decca 444 114-2)
The symphony works just fine until the finale. That finale... What was it about Walton and finales? (The First Symphony was initially premiered without one.) As ever, the composer is thinking big: his Gothic passacaglia theme, organ-like and replete with quasi-Baroque trills, is nothing if not self-important. It sounds well here in Andrew Litton's sumptuously recorded account (a relief after the acoustical let-down of his recent Belshazzar). So, too, does the still, central variation with its wafting high horn and sensuous string and harp glissandi - yet another of Walton's 1,001 Mediterranean twilights.
But then comes the obligatory fugato, the old academic standby, and unlike the equivalent passage in the First Symphony, it sounds like a cut-and- paste job. Only George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra have ever made it work convincingly - and then by dint of their staggering virtuosity. Litton's Bournemouth Symphony are not in that league (the pace is measured, a shade circumspect - as well it might be: these are treacherous pages), but at least they sound motivated.
The heart of the symphony, Walton's exotic lento assai - all shot-silk texturing, piano, vibraphone, harps and celesta to the fore - is most persuasively realised: compliant, dream-like. Sognando. Walton's favourite expressive marking. It's there over the languorous opening theme of the Violin Concerto, and it's very much the raison d'etre of Tasmin Little's reading. Sometimes the effect is very much one of somniloquy (talking in one's sleep), with phrases taken out of the air and teased to a mere whisp of sound. The acidic elements of the score are bowed here with capricious more than rebellious intent.
Some may feel that the playing lacks muscle, trenchancy, that those famed Waltonian contrasts are not as acute or as wilful as they might be. But it's a view, and a sensitive one. Not all the intonation wholly convinces me, but in those silvery ascents above and beyond the clouds, Little is in her element, and that, after all, is where the dream begins and ends.
Sometimes, as Winnie the Pooh says, it just doesn't. You choose your musicians carefully, and give them the kind of music that ought to be ideally suited to them; the results are every bit as intelligent and sensitive as you'd expect, and yet...
Tasmin Little could have given a strongly competitive recording of the Walton Violin Concerto. As those who know her playing would expect, the long, luscious melodic lines are well-shaped, with plenty of attention to the tiny details that make expression personal rather than blandly beautiful. Everything is tasteful, nothing is misjudged, and yet it's rather like looking at a super-glossy brochure of a Mediterranean island - all evidence of vibrant reality is carefully air-brushed out. And it isn't all perfectly self-possessed: the wild tarantella that launches the Scherzo is a bit frenetic - technically firm but not quite focused. No competitor here for the old Heifetz / Walton version (on RCA), still impressive 40 years on, or for Nigel Kennedy (on EMI), a poignant reminder of what a fine performer he could be - it seems like aeons ago.
After this, I still had hopes for the Second Symphony. The old George Szell version (on Sony) crackles with electricity, but the recording makes Walton's scoring sound brittle, and I was sure Litton could coax more human feeling from that opulent slow movement. Well, he does and he doesn't. There is something more intimate about the writing here, but it sent me straight back to the Szell - no doubting the surge in the melodic writing, or the sustained energy of the outer movements. It's that fire in the loins these new versions lack, and Walton just isn't Walton without it.