Sir William Turner Walton, (29.03.1902 -08.03.1983) was an English composer especially known for writing music in several classical genres and styles, from film scores to opera and had a particular flair for occasional music¹. His early work, in particular, made him one of England’s most important composers between the time of Vaughan Williams and that of Benjamin Britten. His best-known works include Façade, the cantata Belshazzar’s Feast, and the Symphony No. 1 in B flat minor. Later in life, Walton left Britain and set up home with his young wife Susana on the Italian island of Ischia. By this time, he had ceased to be regarded as a modernist, and some of his compositions of the 1950s were criticised as old-fashioned.
Walton’s first symphony was first performed by Hamilton Harty and the BBC Symphony Orchestra in the Queen’s Hall on 6 November 1935 and rapidly became one of the greatest British musical successes of the 20th Century. Over time it has been looked upon slightly less favourably but it is, nonetheless, a superbly orchestrated piece full of dramatic power and rhythmic invention and the best of Walton’s works. Expectations of the symphony were high following the earlier successes of the Viola Concerto and Belshazzar’s Feast and Walton struggled with the work for almost four years. At times, during the composition of the first three movements, the composer was said to be close to despair. The opening of the first movement really grabs the listener’s attention with its quiet drum roll, harmony on the horns, a flickering rhythm on the strings and a motif on the oboe that sets a mighty current in motion. The second movement, with its teasing rhythms, is full of rage and leads to another frenzied climax. The third moment sees the lyrical side of the composer and is full of grief from the melancholic opening flute theme onwards. The movement ends with a true masterstroke – listen and you hear what I mean! The finale begins with a more upbeat vitality but earlier themes return throughout.
We have chosen an outstanding 2017 performance performed by the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra in the Lighthouse in Poole under its Chief Conductor Kirill Karabits. Karabits’s reading of the symphony is suitably intense and of monumental proportions, the orchestra are in fine form and they play with just the right thrust and energy. All of this in superb sound. What more could one want?
¹ For example, his marches Crown Imperial and Orb and Sceptre written for the coronations of George VI and Elizabeth II respectively.