William Walton Centenary Concerts, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

The composer behind the Façade
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The Independent Culture

As a plethora of William Walton centenary events multiplies, everybody who's anybody seems to be getting a look in. Tasmin Little's recital last Thursday showed just the right combination of toughness and tenderness in the glorious Violin Sonata of 1948, with its melancholic underlay to a brilliant virtuosic surface.

Here is a player who takes risks for expressive effect, but has the abundant musicianship to carry them off triumphantly. Piers Lane coped magnificently with the rather symphonic accompaniment both here and in Elgar's passionate, haunted late Sonata of 1918 – still in the grand manner, but anything but "smug", as composers of Walton's generation saw this elder figure. An intense and compelling performance with a great sense of long-term flow.

Later that day, The Lindsays were joined by noted soloists in more chamber music. Walton's Piano Quartet, begun at the alarmingly early age of 18, shows a strong influence of Ravel, but already with a certain characteristic cragginess of his own; The Lindsays took their customary rugged and forthright approach, while Kathryn Stott was most forthright of all in some quite flamboyant piano writing.

Walton's early style is not a million miles from that of Herbert Howells, so the inclusion of some of his songs seemed right, while John Mark Ainsley really warmed to his task in the cycle Anon in Love – amusing settings with guitar of naughty 17th-century ditties.

Craig Ogden made a responsive accompanist, and a competent soloist in the Five Bagatelles of 1971. Finally, The Lindsays brought all their Beethovenian experience to bear in Walton's superb Second Quartet of 1947. Their occasional roughnesses of timbre and intonation are always balanced by a tremendous commitment to the music – here brought out to the full with all its bittersweet emotion and biting ferocity.

On the Sunday night, the Nash Ensemble offered its contribution, featuring Walton's contemporary and friend/rival Constant Lambert. The latter's Concerto for piano and nine players is an astonishing piece, integrating influences such as Stravinsky and Ellington into music of brilliance and, considerable emotional depth.

The soloist Ian Brown produced a beautifully clear-cut and seemingly effortless performance here, aided by some sterling playing from his fellow musicians under the dynamic direction of Martyn Brabbins.

Eleanor Bron made a most persuasive storyteller in the 18 year-old Lambert's charming Mr Bear Squash-you-all-flat, and was joined by Richard Stilgoe in William Walton's immortal Façade.

Those who remember the original deadpan delivery of Messrs Sitwell, Lambert and Pears (in recordings still available) might baulk at the excessive characterisation now fashionable in renditions of this extraordinary piece, but Stilgoe's diction was undeniably effective, despite a deplorable "Scotch" accent in number 18, and Bron's marvellously husky voice was eerily reminiscent of the great Edith Sitwell herself, at times. Elegant playing from the Nash Ensemble made it all a joy to listen to.

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