William Walton The Quest The Wise Virgins -----> Classical Music Reviews


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William Walton The Quest The Wise Virgins Ballet Suites English Northern Philharmonia Conducted by David Lloyd-Jones

Recorded in The Concert Hall of Leeds University, England on 11/12 July 2001 NAXOS 8.555868

William Walton is best known as an orchestral composer for his symphonies and film scores and his ballet music, possibly because it is but a small part of his output, has dwelt somewhat in the shadow of these more famous works. However, Walton was a master at handling orchestral forces and the colour and textural variety of the film scores is easily equalled by the characterful and highly theatrical writing of {\i The Quest}. This was Walton's only original ballet score, his other works in the genre being either originally composed for other purposes, or, in the case of The Wise Virgins also recorded on this disc, arrangements of other composer' s music.

The Quest is a substantial score lasting nearly forty minutes and spread over five scenes. Surprisingly, for music of this level of inventiveness, after the original short run in 1943, it received only one recording in 1990 and no other performances at all before this recording was made in 2001. The original war-time staging was choreographed by the great Frederick Ashton, chief choreographer at Sadler's Wells Ballet, the score was conducted by Constant Lambert, costumes designed by John Piper (most famous internationally for his magnificent stained-glass windows in the post-war Coventry cathedral), and the cast included Margot Fonteyn. These talents notwithstanding, the ballet failed to impress and was rapidly dropped from the repertory. The story is loosely based on Spencer's The Fairie Queene but the inclusion of St George and a graphic form of the conflict between good and evil , should have given an opportunity for a patriotic boost during a low point of the war. Musically, the lack of success is remarkable, for the score is full of interest . \

The English Northern Philharmonia (the 'concert giving' name used by the orchestra of Opera North, based in Leeds, England) is unusual in being an opera orchestra that has a separate existence as a full scale symphony orchestra in the concert hall. They are recorded here under their founder conductor David Lloyd-Jones and the orchestral playing is of consistent quality, brass and percussion being particularly notable , without dominating the recorded sound. The balance between these sections and the strings is good throughout.

The other works on this disc are the short orchestral piece written in 1926, just after Walton's first orchestral work, the overture Portsmouth Point. It is a sunny work showing Walton's devotion to southern Italy, and is composed for small orchestra. In this performance the woodwind solos are prominent and very well played.

The Wise Virgins is an interesting work. Made of arrangements of movements from a selection of cantatas by J S Bach, it immediately draws comparison with works such as Stravinsky's Pulchinella or the Ancient Airs and Dances of Ottorino Respighi. The vogue for such neo-classical orchestrations of renaissance or baroque music has become notable in recent years. Although Walton uses a full symphonic orchestra, his arrangements, as Hugh Priory points out in the excellent booklet notes, "are notable for their imagination and avoidance of vulgarity." Indeed there is much to enjoy here and the performance provides enough of the symphonic grandeur and breadth of sound, while also avoiding a tendency to be bombastic in performance; a trap easy to fall into in this type of repertoire.

This disc contains interesting music in a variety of Walton's moods, and, with good detailed notes to accompany it, represents excellent value for money. Well worth while.

(Peter Wells)

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