John Wilson Fails to Get Beneath the Surface of Walton’s First Symphony

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Bennett, Gershwin and Walton: Louis Schwizgebel (piano), Philharmonia Orchestra / John Wilson (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, London, 15.11.2018. (AS)

Louis Schwizgebel (c) Marco Borggreve

Bennett Celebration
Gershwin – Piano Concerto in F
Walton – Symphony No.1 in B flat minor

Choice of tempo would seem to be a vital issue in at least some of Walton’s music. In the 2017 Proms a performance of Belshazzar’s Feast was marred (at least for me) in that ‘there is a swaggering, jaunty quality in much of Walton’s writing for both chorus and orchestra, particularly in syncopated passages, and if tempi are too fast this effect is rather lost, as it was on this occasion’. Though of course the emotional nature of the First Symphony is different from that of Belshazzar, Walton uses similar rhythmic devices throughout the work.

There was a time when one or two new recordings of the Symphony used slower tempi than tradition indicated, and the emotional temperature was lowered as a result. There is a natural urgent vehemence in the music that can be impaired by tempi that are too cautious.

As John Wilson’s performance of the work commenced a quality of urgency was certainly present, and one initially felt a sense of satisfaction at that, but as the music continued the slightly faster than usual tempo led to a certain superficiality of expression, a kind of skating over the music’s strength of emotion, and it sounded merely excitable and hectic. Matters were not helped by some rather untidy playing by woodwind and brass, despite Wilson’s clear beat. The quality of that beat, precise but rather inexpressively clickety, led to a reading of the Scherzo, again taken at a swift tempo, which lacked the quality of ‘con malizia’ that the composer unusually requests in the score. In the following movement there is another qualification to the basic Andante indication, this time ‘con malinconia’. Here Wilson’s conducting, rather unyieldingly steady and relentless, led to a deficiency of expression, and the last movement was yet again invested with tempi that were too fast, causing a kind of bright, shallow excitement. Emotional upheavals were once again glossed over. Usually this work evokes a rave response from an audience, and it was interesting and perhaps significant that enthusiasm seemed rather less than usual on this occasion.

The concert had begun with an attractive five-minute-long essay in jazzy rhythms and virtuoso orchestral scoring written by Richard Rodney Bennett in 1991. The programme annotator remarked on similarities with Walton’s music and his Johannesburg Festival Overture in particular, and you could hear what she meant, though Bennett’s piece is more concise in construction than Walton’s overture.

Bennett’s exuberant piece was a very suitable prelude to Gershwin’s Piano Concerto, with the Swiss-Chinese pianist Louis Schwizgebel as soloist. Here Wilson, with his vast experience in directing show music, was very much at home, and he succeeded quite well in persuading the Philharmonia to lets its hair down; and in the slow movement the solo trumpet sounded as if he had played jazz all his life – perhaps he has!  Schwizgebel didn’t quite match his conductor in his response to the music. He played fluently and attractively, but his rhythms were too introvert for such music, and it sometimes sounded, bizarrely, as if we were listening to a composer such as Grieg. It was an enjoyable performance, but not one that would satisfy traditional followers of Gershwin and other composers who wrote in a similar genre.

Alan Sanders

2 thoughts on “John Wilson Fails to Get Beneath the Surface of Walton’s First Symphony”

  1. William Walton had great affection for “the symph” as he used to call it with a wry smile. He was only too aware that conductors could easily skid over the nuances he carefully calls for in his score. Alan Sanders is right to draw attention to yet another conductor skidding over Walton’s defining guidelines. Those interested could try André Previn’s conducting. Sir William applauded that.

  2. So pleased to have found this review!
    I heard a radio broadcast of the Walton symphony conducted by John Wilson some time ago and hated it.
    All the tempi were much too fast (in my opinion).
    For me the Previn recording is unbeatable.


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