Memo Re: Walton’s First, Acme?

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JD Photomontage

Do you like the sugary, or salty Walton?

Michael Steinberg’s program notes declared: 

The Symphony No. 1 is the culmination of Walton’s conquest of maturity. One can make a strong case that this music is at a level of compositional ambition, concentration, and sheer human urgency and strength that Walton would not reach again.

 As I heard the music for the first time live in the San Francisco Symphony’s Davies Hall last Saturday, I agreed with the late and marvelous annotator, except that I would add “—fortunately” at the end. 

Ambitious, to be sure—in scale (35 minutes or so) and weightiness. Concentrated, without a doubt—all instruments playing most of the time, especially the brass; many notes at a time, not too far apart; a thick mélange of notes worthy of a mudslide. Urgent and Strong, indisputably—a driving Allegro for the first movement, with a catchy motto theme riding a continuous crest of never-ending pedal points; an even faster and more driving and dissonant second movement (too serious for a “scherzo” title); a nasty swallow of a third movement; and an extended blaring to conclude the fourth. 

I love loudness, dissonance, and drive, but cannot abide surplusage. Especially compounded with unimaginative orchestration, made all the more apparent by the mastery shown in the first two works in the program, Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin and Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (with a fabulous soloist in pianist Kirill Gerstein). I couldn’t help thinking of a comparable British symphony, Vaughan Williams’ Fourth, which premiered in April 1935 between the previous November premiere of the first three movements of the Walton and the August 1935 performance of the four movements complete. Vaughan Williams had as much drive, seriousness, and urgency, but he knew when to stop and how to contrast his material. I thought too of Walton’s models: the relative transparency and even charm of Sibelius, despite his affection for pedal points; the blaringness of Respighi’s Pines of Rome finale that’s so much better orchestrated, though no more profound. 

Conductor Semyon Bychkov was thoroughly familiar with the music, having studied it for years. I felt he made the best case for it. A better case, since it premiered with only three movements, would be to drop the second movement all together. 

What Walton reached for in the future, instead of the attributes prized by Steinberg, was his 1939 Violin Concerto. Steinberg wrote that it’s “not devoid of either sentiment or charm,” but its “sugar content is high.” I’d take that over charmlessness and salt any day.