Review: Walton Symphonies Nos. 1-2, Kirill Karabits and the Bournemouth Symphony

How is it that the two symphonies of the British composer William Walton, from 1935 and 1960, have escaped my attention until now? Oh, certainly, the fault is mostly mine; I could have always listened to a recording of them. More to my point, though, is that I never did bother to listen to them because I thought them negligible and unimportant, having never once run across them in my many years of concertgoing. (Of course, what British symphonies do you ever hear regularly performed by American orchestras?)

Well, not to tarry, they are both very good. The First, completed when Walton was in his early 30s, is usually considered his masterpiece. “The claim that his First Symphony is one of the great twentieth-century symphonies is not excessive,” writes Michael Steinberg — a statement which itself seems not excessive. In four movements, the symphony is clearly modeled on those of Sibelius (the foremost living symphonist at the time), though Walton’s style here is more pent up, athletic and intense than it is dark and brooding. Walton took several years to write it and apparently had quite a lot of trouble doing so. (Stuck on the finale, he asked the advice of the composer Constant Lambert, who suggested a fugue. Walton, who was largely self-taught, admitted that he didn’t know how to write one. Lambert sent him to the article on fugues in Grove’s Dictionary and after reading it Walton produced the dazzling fugue at the center of his finale.)

Ostinatos drive the outer movements; the string section is required to leap and bound. The second movement is a biting and gritty scherzo marked Presto con malizia (with malice). The slow moment (Andante con maliconia) initially has a dazed sadness before rising to a more ominous and dramatic despair.

Perhaps Walton’s symphonies are underestimated because they remind us of others. In addition to Sibelius, the First recalls, in spots, Hindemith. The Second brings Stravinsky to mind, especially the Symphony in C and the Symphony in Three Movements (Walton’s Second is in three movements, too). But never mind, Walton makes the work his own, and it is enchantingly and elegantly scored. An angular and muscular Allegro molto is followed by a voluptuous, though still acrid slow movement (with moments of “Firebird” opulence). The finale — marked Passacaglia (Theme – Variations 1-10 – Fugue – Coda scherzando) — is a compositional tour de force, with a 12-tone theme and the orchestra put through the paces, a giant, powerhouse machine.

The current recording (on Onyx Classics) comes courtesy of the Bournemouth Symphony, home in the South of England, and its Ukrainian principal conductor Kirill Karabits, who together have made many recordings before, including the complete Prokofiev symphonies. These are confident and kinetic performances, without wasted effort and thrillingly pedal to the metal. The strings in particular deserve praise for their lean and nimble efforts in Walton’s pulsating and skittering lines. It’s all well tailored and well steered.

Review: Dover Quartet plays ‘Voices of Defiance,’ music of Ullmann, Laks and Shostakovich

By TIMOTHY MANGAN

Reading the liner notes to the Dover Quartet’s “Voices of Defiance” before I listened to it was probably a mistake. They gave me the impression that the recording would be tough, unpleasant going.

The three pieces were written in three successive years during World War II. Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 2, the centerpiece of the disc, in his dark and brooding wartime manner, was composed under the least desperate circumstances of the three, at a Soviet-led artist retreat in Ivanovo.

But Szymon Laks wrote his String Quartet No. 3 shortly after he was freed from Auschwitz, where he survived only because he supplied music for the Nazi guards and prisoners, many on the way to the gas chambers. And Viktor Ullmann composed his String Quartet No. 3 in the Theresienstadt concentration camp. He left the manuscript there with a friend when he found out he was going to be transferred. He was transferred to Auschwitz, where he died in the gas chambers on Oct. 18, 1944.

In his extensive and well written liner notes, Camden Shaw, cellist of the Dover, interprets the music in the light of these and other facts, and rightly so. That is a note writer’s prerogative, even his duty. And I am not suggesting that we not know the stories behind these pieces, or that Shaw’s interpretation of aspects of the music in light of those stories is necessarily way off the mark.

But in the case of the quartets by Ullmann and Laks, I do not think that they can bear the burden of the stories behind them, and I feel it’s an open question what, exactly, the composers meant to express in them.

Less than 15 minutes in length (the second and final movement is less than three), Ullmann’s quartet isn’t expansive enough to express the desperation the composer must have felt when he was writing it. Ullmann’s piece is tightly knit and closely argued, serious and Bartókian, freely dissonant (there are some pseudo 12-tone sections) but basically tonal, ending, in fact, with major chords. “We know we have glimpsed into Ullmann’s great and powerful soul,” Shaw writes of the piece. Perhaps. At any rate, it’s a finely wrought string quartet.

Laks’s Third is, to my ears, a rather cheerful work, Bartók at his sunniest. The themes are Polish folk songs (forbidden at Auschwitz), and “their inclusion here,” writes Shaw, “sends a clear message: he is trying to find his way home.” This may or not be right, but it certainly leads Shaw to read a darkness into the slow movement that I do not hear. He calls it “one of the most impassioned and heartbreaking movements for string quartet.” I hear merely a kind of gorgeous melancholy.

The Shostakovich String Quartet No. 2 is his second longest, in four movements and lasting almost 36 minutes here. It is not encountered much, and its inclusion is most welcome. It is a fine piece, with typical Shostakovichian characteristics, including masterful counterpoint, folk tunes and simple melodies worked up to agitated and dissonant climaxes, and lonely, disenchanted solos. It ends unambiguously in minor.

In all, it’s a great, unhackneyed program, smartly unified and intellectually stimulating. What’s more, it is played beautifully by the Dover Quartet, a young ensemble that has quickly nabbed a spot in the vanguard of string quartets. Its virtuosity is of the type that doesn’t bring undue attention to itself, with warmly singing phrases and unhurried pace and polished tone that isn’t stretched to a breaking point. The pieces are laid out just so, detailed and expressive, and the ensemble breathes together. The recording — on the Cedille label, made in the Rolston Recital Hall at the Banff Centre — is first rate.

***

Here’s the finale of Szymon Laks’s String Quartet No. 3, played by the Dover Quartet.

Review: Louisville Orchestra, Teddy Abrams: ‘All In’

By TIMOTHY MANGAN

Teddy Abrams is the 30-year-old music director of the venerable Louisville Orchestra and he’s at least a quadruple threat: Conductor, composer, clarinetist and pianist. The young man, a protege of Michael Tilson Thomas, is stirring things up with the orchestra and their first album together, dubbed “All In” and released on Decca Gold on Sept. 22, reached No. 1 on Billboard’s Traditional Classical Chart in its first week. (Obiter dictum: These days, that doesn’t necessarily mean huge sales.) “All In” is the orchestra’s first album in nearly 30 years. Abrams appears as conductor, composer and clarinetist on it.

At one time, some will remember, the Louisville Orchestra was one of the most recorded in the world. In the late 1940s the ensemble launched the Louisville Orchestra Commissioning Project, funded by both local arts money and Rockefeller Foundation grants. The Project eventually yielded hundreds of new works for orchestra as well some 150 recordings of them (on the orchestra’s own label, First Edition Records). Abrams and the orchestra hope “to pick up and expand this legacy,” the liner notes say. Good luck to them.

The disc opens with Abrams’ own “Unified Field,” a shortish four movement work in an accessible, popular and diverse style. In the liner notes, Abrams offers this: “My own music reflects my favorite musical experiences and memories, ranging from an obsession with ‘classical’ contrapuntal technique to the unmatched energy of playing a rock show and the joy of jamming with great Bluegrass artists. Usually these worlds do not find much common ground, but ‘Unified Field’ is an attempt to join everything I love into a single expression across multiple genres.”

The result is pleasant enough, light, too, but bordering on hackneyed. The first movement is pretty, oceanic movie music; its main theme returns in the other movements. The second movement romps in a percussive groove, complete with electric bass and electric guitar. A drum set and Hammond-style organ are added to the processional third movement (a kissing cousin to the “Pilgrims’ March” in Berlioz’s “Harold in Italy”), and the finale is a comedic jamboree on a country fiddling tune.

Surprisingly perhaps, the piece is played none too well here, rather sloppily most of the way, the strings sounding overtaxed and the musicians just not moving as one.

Perhaps it won’t matter to many listeners that the next three numbers aren’t remotely classical, but they do seem out of place here. The vocalist Storm Large, of Pink Martini fame, joins the orchestra for three songs in jazzy style, a pair of ballads, “A Woman’s Heart” by Large and “The Long Goodbye” by Abrams, and an uptempo “It’s Alright with Me” by Cole Porter. A gifted stylist, Large rather overdoes it in this case, pressing and preening. The arrangement of the Porter tune, credited partly to Large, is poor — it never quite gels. (Compare Ella Fitzgerald’s version.)

Which leaves the finale, Copland’s Clarinet Concerto, with Abrams as soloist. (Someone named Jason Seber conducts it, but we are never told who he is.) Written in 1948 for Benny Goodman, the concerto mixes the composer’s familiar American style with Stravinskian neoclassicism and jazz. Abrams negotiates the high-flying solo part sensitively and athletically but the intonation is not always perfectly centered. Seber and the orchestra give him nimble enough support. But it’s too little, too late.