It’s nice to have Walton’s two greatest works (with apologies to lovers of Façade) on one disc. The music is played by two staples of the British concert scene, the BBC Symphony under Edward Gardner and violinist Tasmin Little. Gardner is music director of the English National Opera and will leave in 2015 to take the helm of the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra.
By all accounts, Gardner has done stellar work at the ENO, raising standards on the stage and in the pit. Little has a busy career playing around the world and in England at the Proms and on BBC radio.
Also, nice to have both works recorded on Chandos, a superb company that takes great care with its recordings. I remember sitting very quietly in a church in Montreal during a recording of Shostakovich piano concertos played by the composer’s grandson. The composer’s son Maxim was conducting. Maxim moved the front mic an inch for baton clearance. Immediately, the engineer came flying out of the room to berate the poor conductor for moving it. The Chandos team have ears and they are fastidious. It shows in this splendid Hybrid SACD - DSD recording —Watford Colosseum: 18 September 2013 (Violin Concerto); Fairfield Halls, Croydon: 3 and 4 February 2014 (Symphony No. 1). Both venues have excellent acoustics and they are captured beautifully by the same engineer as the Shostakovich recording.
So, the performances? There are two giant elephants in the recording room with these two works. Previn and the LSO recorded the symphony in what is generally regarded as the definitive recording (RCA 1967) . Previn hit it out of the park — the LSO plays the difficult score incredibly well. A lot of recordings have come and gone, including those conducted by the composer, Litton, Rattle, Haitink, and a later recording by Previn with the RPO — and, while all well played, they miss some of the spirit that the early Previn recording captured. As for the Violin Concerto (1936; revised 1943) — it was written for, and recorded by, Heifetz. ‘Nuff said.
How do our English staples compare against a definitive LSO recording and the greatest violinist of the 20th Century? Very well.
First, the symphony. There’s so much to ‘interpret’ in this tricky and bountiful score composed in 1935. I think it is by far the greatest English symphony (my Audiophilia colleague JN is probably apoplectic that I don’t consider the two Elgar symphonies greater).
Gardner has prepared the BBC Symphony extremely well. The ‘Malizia’ of the scherzo is truly malicious, the fugue of the last movement is as rhythmically incisive as I’ve heard with perfect balance in the wind and brass. In fact, the tuning and balance of the entire orchestra is flawless. I love that Gardner goes for the gusto — crescendos, macro and micro dynamics, power, all with the expectation of fine ensemble. Does it supplant ’67 Previn? No. But, I will live happily with this recording. It did not disappoint in any way. All other recordings I’ve heard had me sighing at one thing or another. An opportunity missed here and there. Gardner takes every musical and rhythmic opportunity and creates a wonderful interpretation.
To the fiddle concerto. Unlike the great symphony, which casts a shadow, his superb Violin Concerto (1936) must stand in the queue behind Elgar’s masterpiece. My favourite modern recording of the concerto is by another English violinist, Thomas Bowes (Signum Classics). He gets the dreamy, the pathos, the style and the rhythmic precision as well as anybody. He even holds up well to the dedicatee. Tasmin Little plays very well, with beautiful tone and perfect intonation. Hers is a lovely interpretation, too. I prefer Bowes’ performance, but Little’s is first class. It makes for a fine pairing to the wonderful recording of the symphony. Very highly recommended.
Chandos CHSA5136 
Playing time — 76:28
Recording producer Brian Pidgeon
Sound engineer Ralph Couzens
Recording venues Watford Colosseum: 18 September 2013 (Violin Concerto); Fairfield Halls, Croydon: 3 and 4 February 2014 (Symphony No. 1)
Thuresson: CM 402 (main sound) Schoeps: MK22 / MK4 / MK6
DPA: 4006 & 4011
CM 402 microphones are hand built by the designer, Jörgen Thuresson, in Sweden.
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