Walton’s First is one of the most outstanding symphonies of the 20th century, the turbulent energies of which are apparently the result of the composer’s failing relationship with one Imma von Doernberg. The exultant final movement burst out after a fresh encounter with one Alice Wimborne. Whatever the inspiration, it stands with the Elgar symphonies at the peak of English orchestral composition. A pity such passion had not fired the Second Symphony; compare the ravishing slow movement of the First with that of the Second… The latter seems almost an afterthought.
Premiered in 1957, the Second Symphony fell afoul of the “toot, whistle, plunk and boom” school of music that held contemporary classical music to ransom for the following 40 years. We now know better and the symphony can be seen for what it is: an excellent if minor work. It is drier and less moving than the First, stylistically at one with many great 20th-century composers such as William Schuman, Sibelius and Roy Harris. Never at fault is Walton’s brilliant orchestration.
These are excellent performances and good value for money. The finest Walton First is still the 1967 recording with the LSO under André Previn on RCA. (Sargent’s better-played but less visceral version with the Philharmonia was released at the same time.) Also well regarded are the Mackerras recordings on EMI of the same three works. For the Second Symphony, George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra are incomparable, although this new version under Brabbins runs it close. Sandwiched between the two on this CD is the warm Siesta, an early work from 1926.