The Compact Collection

Rob Cowan on the Week's CD Releases

IF ASKED to nominate the most underrated great British symphony, I'd probably select Walton's Second, mainly because the First nearly always gets a better press. The Second is sparer, more modernistic, more elusive and richer in those tender moments of sentiment that distinguish Walton's string concertos. EMI underline the point by programming Andre Previn's benchmark 1973 LSO recording of the Second Symphony, in the context of an all-Walton two-CD package that also includes memorably stated accounts of the Violin Concerto (with Ida Haendel) and Cello Concerto (with Paul Tortelier), both under Paavo Berglund. The main attraction here, for Anglophile music-lovers in the know, will be the first CD appearance of Bernard Haitink's 1981 Philharmonia recording of the First Symphony. Haitink's Walton is asthought-provoking as his Vaughan Williams, and I challenge any reader to name an alternative reading that unfolds the epic slow movement with greater understanding.

EMI's digital recording is stunning and, if Previn and the LSO steal a lead in terms of physical excitement, Haitink reveals rather more of the depth behind the notes.

Walton's Cello Concerto pays more than passing homage to Prokofiev, whereas the Cello Concerto by Gordon Crosse is frequently redolent of Britten. Little known until now, the Crosse harbours many memorable moments. Alexander Baillie's performance on NMC accesses the full range of Crosse's imagination, from fright and melancholy to elfin busy-ness. Prior to the Concerto, we hear the disquieting strains of "Some Marches on a Ground" and after it, mezzo soprano Susan Bickley sings the 37-minute monodrama "Memories of Morning: Night", the humbling tale of the first Mrs Rochester (in Jane Eyre) as speculated by Jean Rhys. Bickley is a wild-eyed protagonist, and the BBC Symphony under Martyn Brabbins keep Crosse's crowded score in vivid focus.

And so to the miller's daughter, and tenor Wolfgang Holzmair, who serves as a sensitive travel guide through the 20 songs of Schubert's Die schone Mullerin - though the subtler aspects of the plot are even better narrated by his pianist. Imogen Cooper's accompanying asides are the stuff of great musicianship, whether bending the line or calling on a huge swatch of tonal colours in support of the text. Just listen to the last verse of first song, "Roaming", to her gentle staccato in "Morning's Greeting", or to the rustic lilt of "Mine". Holzmair's singing is mellifluous, but my ear gravitates to Cooper. She is, for my money, the greatest living Schubert accompanist. What we need is a recital of separate songs, with the heart-breaking "Vor meiner Wiege" as a priority.

Walton/Previn, Haitink EMI "Double Forte" CZS5 73371 2 (two discs) Crosse/Baillie, Brabbins NMC D058 Schubert/Holzmair, Cooper Philips 456 581-2

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