Free-loading dilettante or quirky genius? A talent to rival Britten or a second-rate tunesmith? Judging from the low attendance at the first of this year's Walton Centenary Concerts, the much-hyped debate over Sir William's position in the pantheon of British composers has generated little interest beyond the devotees.
The few who gathered at the Barbican for the LSO's performance of Capriccio Burlesco, In honour of the City of London, and the suite from Henry V seemed happy enough. But they would. Walton's chippily tuneful music, with its vigorous choral writing and Tudorbethan charm, has more than a frisson of small island defiance; hence the quiver of tweedy excitement at "Once more unto the breach" and the tapping of hand-tooled brogues during Capriccio Burlesco. For the London Symphony Chorus, it was an excellent opportunity to show off their bright blend and rhythmic acuity. For conductor Marin Alsop, another chance to display her clear, generous beat and unegotistical manner. For the orchestra, it was craft rather than art. As one uninspired violinist muttered on his way out, "Oh well. Another film score." Exactly.
For my part, the excess of bravura, bounce and bombast left me cold (though trying to imagine the reception of a Lancastrian composer's cantata on the metropolitan superiority of London at its 1937 Leeds premiere provided some distraction). Walton's music does have better moments – the sinuous Viola Concerto, the brittle wit of the Three Sitwell Songs – but not enough, I think, to sustain a whole season of celebrations. Which makes me wonder whether this is knee-jerk programming on the parts of the various orchestras involved. Do we have to honour the centenaries of composers regardless of the quality of their work? Will next season's brochures be covered with Khachaturian, for instance? I do hope not. Duty calls, so this won't be my only evening of wall-to-wall Walton, but I can't say I'm looking forward to it.
Pity the poor singer in a damp climate. You can wrap your neck in the finest cashmere, take every herbal remedy known to man, spend days inhaling steam, sipping hot lemon and avoiding the pub, and still you get a cold. Pity poor Werner Güra, whose recording of Schubert's Die schöne Müllerin earned him the soubriquet of successor to the late, great Fritz Wunderlich, and whose windpipe rattled like a cartoon skeleton throughout his packed Wigmore Hall recital. Gosh, it's a lovely voice. Gosh, it was in trouble last Saturday. But whether Güra's fresh simplicity – even in rudest health – is suitable for Schumann's much darker song cycle Dichterliebe is another question.
On the basis of this performance, even allowing for vocal compromise, I'd have to say not. Or at least not yet. The contrast between Güra's fluent singing of Beethoven's An die ferne Geliebte and Schubert's Goethe settings, and his Schumann was less to do with music than text. Güra is still very young, and though Dichterliebe – like Die schöne Müllerin – depicts a young man's romantic disappointment, the lover in question is more sophisticated than Schubert's petulant naif. A ravishing sound is not enough. Nor is a totally straight reading of "Ich grolle nicht". While I respect the decision to foreground the accompaniment – the most telling writing is in the play-outs – and while I adored pianist Christoph Berner's characterisation, the partnership was unbalanced. Let's hope Güra waits a few years before tackling Winterreise.
The Holocaust Memorial Day Concert offered the most satisfying musical experience of the week, from that most unlikely source: an ad-hoc chamber ensemble. Putting four terrific soloists together rarely makes a terrific string quartet, but in violinists Katharine Gowers and Antje Weithaas, and violist Tatjana Masurenko, Natalie Clein (cellist and co-organiser of the event) found a truly wonderful group. I've rarely heard four players so well matched in tone – so well matched, in fact, that you had to watch carefully to see who was taking which line in the quartets. The music too, was fabulous. Forsaking the schmaltz of Bloch, Clein assembled a programme of works that made you ache for what could have been composed in the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies had Hans Krasa, Gideon Klein, and Ervin Schulhoff not been murdered in the death camps. Schulhoff's evocative, fierce writing – a blend of the best aspects of Debussy and Schoenberg – in particular deserves a wider audience, so watch out for the Radio 3 broadcast in May.Reuse content