Norman Stinchcombe reviews Walton, Proust and Mendelssohn CDs


WILLIAM WALTON 'A Centenary Celebration': Williams, Dalley, Whately. Orchestra of the Swan / O'Neil (SOMM Recordings) ★★★★★

Façade, the collaboration between eccentric poet Edith Sitwell and the 19-year-old tyro composer William Walton, was premiered privately on January 24, 1922. It was a minor succès de scandale. This terrific new recording shows that it's still perplexing, surprising and immensely entertaining. Roderick Williams (baritone) and Tamsin Dalley (mezzo-soprano) perform (not just recite) the many tongue-twisting zany verses with precision, gusto and spot-on characterization. The small ensemble from the Orchestra of the Swan, under Bruce O'Neil, provide pin-sharp lively support. Walton composed the soundtrack for Laurence Olivier's 1944 film of Shakespeare's 'Henry V'. This ingenious chamber-sized arrangement, by composer Edward Watson, and the OTS's vigorous playing means that we don't miss a big orchestra – in Walton's pastiche period music it's actually an improvement. Kevin Whately (television detective Lewis) is a forthright declaimer of Shakespeare's verse, with a Crispin's Day speech so rousing I felt like taking the King's shilling immediately.

Norman Stinchcombe

'The Proust Album': Diluka, Orchestre de Chambre de Paris / Niquet ★

This year is the centenary of Marcel Proust's death. Warner Classics claims this CD is a "great project" devoted to the composers the novelist "loved". Not quite. Proust was devoted to Reynaldo Hahn's songs of which there are more than a hundred. Do we hear any? No, instead we get Hahn's piano concerto which was premiered in 1931 – nine years after Proust died. It's not a great piece and pianist Shani Diluka's lacklustre performance suggests that its obscurity is well-deserved. One of Proust's fictional characters is the composer Venteuil. The real-life model for his Violin Sonata is a perennial puzzle: Franck, Saint-Saëns and Pierné are the favourite candidates. Do we hear one of these? No. Instead Diluka and Pierre Fouchenneret cobble together three movements by Hahn, Ysaÿe and Chaminade. Nicely played but musically nonsense. Soprano Natalie Dessay's charming performance of two Faure songs are not enough to save the day.

Norman Stinchcombe

MENDELSSOHN 'Songs Without Words' Volume 1 / Donohoe ★★★

Peter Donohoe thinks Mendelssohn's music is "extraordinarily underrated". Perhaps because, he suggests in his booklet note, Mendelssohn's "music rarely strays into the tragic – almost every work is imbued with a sense of joy and positivity that is sometimes wrongly mistaken for superficiality." There, I think , is the reason for my reservations about this disc: Donohoe's desire to show these pieces are not superficial actually does them no favours. His rubato is sometimes excessive with "listen-to-this-lovely-bit" pauses inserted. Tempi are generally slow. In Opus 19 No.1, Opus 19 No.3 and Op.30 No.4 he's considerably slower than Murray Perahia's flowing speeds, and Perahia's 'Hunting Song' has elegance as well as propulsion, making Donohoe sound over-forceful. Donohoe's more successful in the youthfully exuberant pieces which start the disc, the Trois fantaisies ou Caprices, Op. 16 and the Rondo capriccioso Op. 14 – a scintillating work. Chandos's sound is exemplary and playing time generous.

Norman Stinchcombe

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