It may come as a surprise to see the regional and largely unfamiliar New Haven Symphony Orchestra on the fairly mainstream British label Nimbus, especially in a thorny work like William Walton's Symphony No. 1. The occasion is a Walton project undertaken by the Beinecke rare book library at Yale University, which owns a substantial collection of Walton materials and made them available for study. Nobody involved in the booklet (in English only) is claiming this resulted in a wholesale revision of interpretation for either the Symphony No. 1 or the Violin Concerto, written for Jascha Heifetz and premiered one week after the outbreak of World War II. But the musicians involved have risen to the occasion, and reminded listeners worldwide of the high level of talent present in quite a few of America's regional orchestras. Sibelius looms large as an influence in both pieces, with tonality stretched a bit farther than the Finn ever did; observers and Walton himself pointed to that of Stravinsky, as well, but he seems to have used Stravinsky's motor rhythms to express a certain darkly humorous streak in his personality rather than deriving fundamental structures from them. The concerto, whose finale contains a gorgeous example of Walton's way with pure melody, was designed to tax Heifetz to the limit, and some later violinists pronounced it unplayable. But Juilliard-trained violinist Kurt Nikkanen doesn't sweat, apart from a few reedy passages in the vast territory of double stops. The Symphony No. 1 might also be termed a virtuoso work, with dense, dark textures that go beyond Sibelian gloom into a sort of nervous foreboding. Conductor William Boughton takes the symphony more slowly than normal and gives the listener lots to chew on, but does not lose its forward motion. The sound, from Yale's Woolsey Hall, is transparent and entirely adequate to heavy demands. Most of the standard recordings of these works are well worn, and this one deserves attention from Walton fans.
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AllMusic Review by James Manheim
|Symphony No. 1|