September 2006

Walton - Symphony No. 1
London Symphony Orchestra, Sir Colin Davis conductor
LSO Live LSO0576
Format: Hybrid Multichannel SACD

by Richard Freed

Musical Performance *****
Recording Quality ****1/2
Overall Enjoyment *****

Walton’s 1935 First Symphony has remained on the fringes of the so-called standard repertory for years, awaiting the level of advocacy Colin Davis provides here to establish it firmly as one of the major symphonies of the 20th century.

In the 1930s, when Walton (barely past 30 himself) composed this work, Sibelius had captured the attention of British musicians and their audiences powerfully and, as it turned out, lastingly. The first recordings of Sibelius symphonies were made by the London Symphony Orchestra. Arnold Bax quoted Sibelius outright in his own symphonies, and Vaughan Williams dedicated his wartime Fifth Symphony to Sibelius.

It is not at all curious that the young Walton responded so openly to the great Finn’s influence and incorporated his characteristics in this symphony. What is remarkable is that Colin Davis, an experienced and widely admired conductor of Sibelius’s works, should somehow manage to make the Sibelian allusions so much less apparent than they are in most other performances. Davis gives us Walton entirely in the composer’s own voice, rendering immaterial the matter of who or what may have influenced him in finding it, and focusing on the work’s distinctive urgency.

At just 46 minutes, the disc is not generously filled, but in this case that is immaterial. This is a very powerful work given the performance of a lifetime, and the live recording (mercifully without applause) is simply stunning. I expect this to rank very near the top of more than a few "year’s best" lists for 2006.