“Sibelius with spats”

[emphasis added]

That’s the latest rescension of Stephen Hough’s epigrammatic summary of the Walton first symphony, of which more later.

Tonight again to hear Hough play the Tchaikovsky second piano concerto with the SSO and the Walton symphony in the second half.

I had a choice between row J in the middle and row U on the non-keyboard side of the stalls. I chose the former, stalkingly close to piano and pianist. At the price of almost total loss of the woodwinds, and an amusing sense in the slow movement of a conversation between mother and son in one room (son rather inclined to tantrums, I’m afraid) and father somewhere out the back, this was worth it.

Closer up, Hough’s playing felt more romantic, although there were still plenty of crisp touches and this time I really “got” the joke just before the final big (but briskly codetta-ish) finish.

The middle movement opens and closes with concertante parts for the solo violin and cello. Dene Olding, wearing his groovier, thick-framed, glasses, did not disappoint. Nor did Timothy Walden, the recently appointed co-principal cello. To my memory, this is the first really big night out I’ve heard him in. There were murmurs of commendation amongst the senior South African set amongst whom I sit on Saturday night. On Monday, the piano was between us and I was hearing him through the gap beneath it, with the effect already referred to above. The reward was to hear up close some rather delicious voicing and shaping of the inner voice when Hough came to play the theme with all elements brought together within the piano part.

The last movement so obviously comes from the same place as Tchaikovsky ballet finales that it is not surprising that the concerto (the shorter version, apparently) has been used as music for a ballet. My neighbour in the second half told me that.

Come back soon, Mr Hough! Your country (or this one, anyway) needs you! This may show that I haven’t really absorbed one of the most elementary distinctions in economics, but humour me, please.

My neighbour in the first half told me that the best recording of the Walton was made by Previn in 1961. We agreed that he was well free of Mia Farrow.

One difference between Saturday night and Monday night is that there were quite a lot of people on Saturday night in the area near me (rear stalls) who left at interval. There was very little of that on Monday. Nevertheless, I was able to secure a spot in row P, which proved sufficient to get a reasonably clear hearing of the whole orchestra. In fact, it was probably clearer than my usual further back seats, simply because closer, though less well-balanced.

My new neighbour (already referred to as the source of the ballet tip) told me he had been attending Sydney Symphony Concerts since 1936. He (and, I think, his son, there with him and who I judged to be about 5 years older than I) also go to the Friday night series to which I go. He specifically mentioned the bad night for the horn section on the last occasion, though not with any malice. He certainly thought things had improved since 1936, though he hastened to add “It wasn’t a cultural desert, by any means. We had Schnabel here playing the Beethoven concertos.” He might have been a bit of a French horn buff, because he did notice the one bodgy horn entry in the concerto.

On second hearing of the Walton, I heard more Sibelius and much less Elgar. In fact the only really Elgarian moment I noticed was the jaunty bit shortly into the last movement. However, this might have been because I was still a bit low to really hear the brass to its best advantage. The slow music felt the most like real Walton, not because I presume to know who was the “real” Walton, but because to me it was the least like anyone else. The most Sibelian moments were the opening of the first and last movement.

The fugue in the last movement sticks out from the rest of the symphony. It is not a surprise to find that this was a solution to a compositional impasse. There’s nothing wrong with it, but you do get a sense of someone saying (some mixed metaphors coming): “Fill up that gap!” (it seems Walton had already written the opening and its reprise as the finale) and then Walton diligently knitting up a fugue. After all, if anything can generate music to measure or by the yard, it is a fugue.

Bearing in mind just how far ahead engagements are made, succession planning can never really stop for an orchestra. As Ashkenazy has only taken a three-year appointment, the search must be on already. Tea-leaf readers will presumably scrutinize this and next year’s conducting rosters closely for any clues and prospects. I don’t claim to be able to pick these things, but a conductor at Wolff’s level without a present appointment must be at least a plausible candidate.

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