Two more splendid Nixa recordings with Sir Adrian Boult (1889-1983) are now transferred to CD in the SOMM catalogue. The stereo recording of Walton’s Symphony in B flat minor (1935), a truly blazing performance recorded in London’s Walthamstow Assembly Hall in 1956 and the Oratorio Belshazzar’s Feast with baritone Dennis Noble and the London Philharmonic Choir recorded in the same venue in 1953.
Dennis Noble – Baritone
London Philharmonic Choir
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Sir Adrian Boult – Conductor
On both these recordings Sir Adrian conducts the London Philharmonic Orchestra (here appearing under the name of Philharmonic Promenade Orchestra for contractual reasons).
The original Gramophone review praised the recording of the Symphony thus “…. never before on disc has this immensely powerful music sounded one half so well as it does on this new Nixa, which offers a physical quality of sound which is at once rich, powerful and brilliant. It is also, in the major respects, well balanced: the brass ensemble will blend in the background or cut through with a blaze of sound where required; the woodwind ensemble will hold its own with the strings where required.” And elsewhere.. “Walton’s own reading of the symphony, miraculously executed by the Philharmonia, can be found on his HMV record; and this authenticity is that record’s particular virtue, and its particular contribution – a very valuable one – to history. The quality of its recorded sound, however, is in no way to be compared to that of the first-class Nixa version,which, history apart, I would unhesitatingly choose for my own library”.
The first complete performance of the Symphony was given by Hamilton Harty and the BBC Symphony Orchestra on 6th November 1935, although a performance of the first three movements had been given the previous December by Harty with the London Symphony Orchestra, while Walton struggled with the composition of the finale.
The Symphony, cast in the heroic mould, is a real landmark of English composition, one of the greatest English Symphonies of the 1930s It begins with an Allegro assai, an eloquent, dramatic first movement full of turbulent emotions and high-voltage energy, followed by a stinging, malicious Scherzo (Walton asks for a Scherzo: Presto con malizia). The third movement (Andante con Malinconia) is slow, intense and melancholic but the invigorating finale (Maestoso; Brioso ed Ardemente) is totally different in outlook, being almost Elgarian in its ceremonial jubilation. It’s made up of scenes of turbulence and struggle but at length the storms subside, and a brief pastoral interlude leads into a triumphal coda.
The Symphony took Walton almost four years to produce. It’s generally believed that he was inspired to write the Symphony during his tempestuous relationship with Baroness Irma von Doernberg, who finally left him for a Hungarian doctor. It may account, to some extent, for the fact that Walton became stuck after the slow movement; his new relationship with Alice Wimborne may have given him the musical impetus and inspiration for the last movement – although he still dedicated the Symphony as a whole to Irma von Doernberg.
Some ten years after Walton conducted the first recording of his oratorio, Belshazzar’s Feast, Boult made this, the first recording for LP issue, on the Nixa label. It was issued in 1954 and was well received. The Record Guide of 1955 gave it a double-star, their highest accolade and here is an excerpt from that review:
“The text of this oratorio was selected and arranged from the Book of Isaiah by Sir Osbert Sitwell. There is some beautiful and quiet choral writing near the opening of the work, but the rhythmic ferocity of the finale recalls the first movement of the Symphony. The piece is a tour de force, and when adequately performed, as in this set, it is irresistibly exciting. Considering the high dynamics, and the weight of the combined orchestra and chorus, the Nixa recording of this strenuous work is a considerable engineering feat. A splendid achievement.”
The music throughout, is complex rhythmically, and richly orchestrated. The rhythms and harmonies reflect Walton’s interest in jazz and other popular music, pressed into service to tell a religious story. Walton struggled with the setting for several years, and it grew from its original conception as a short work for small forces, as commissioned by the BBC, to its eventual form. The Leeds Festival took on the first performance.
The work is scored for very large orchestra, chorus in eight parts, semichorus, and baritone soloist. The chorus represents the Jewish people throughout, although they adopt the tone of the Babylonians when telling the story of the feast. It is in ten distinct sections, played continuously. The chorus and baritone sing of their homeland Zion, in an emotional setting of Psalm 137 (By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down, and wept), and angrily express their bitterness toward their captors. The narrative then begins, and we hear their horror, and then outrage, at the profanities of the king. This leads to an eerie depiction of the writing on the wall, and the death, that night, of Belshazzar. The people celebrate their freedom, in a joyous song of praise and thanksgiving interrupted by a lament over the fall of Babylon, great city (“Alleluia, for great Babylon’s fallen”).
On This Recording
- Symphony No. 1: I. Allegro assai
- Symphony No. 1: II. Scherzo: Presto con malizia
- Symphony No. 1: III. Andante con malinconia
- Symphony No. 1: IV. Maestoso: Allegro brioso
- Belshazzar’s Feast: Thus Spake Isaiah
- Belshazzar’s Feast: If I forget thee, O Jerusalem
- Belshazzar’s Feast: By the waters of Babylon
- Belshazzar’s Feast: Babylon was a great city
- Belshazzar’s Feast: Praise ye
- Belshazzar’s Feast: Thus in Babylon
- Belshazzar’s Feast: And in that same hour
- Belshazzar’s Feast: Then sing aloud to God
- Belshazzar’s Feast: The trumpeters and pipers are silent
- Belshazzar’s Feast: Then sing aloud to God