Breaking up is hard to do. If his First Symphony is anything to go by, William Walton took it particularly badly. A turbulent love affair with his mistress, the wealthy widow Baroness Imma von Doernberg, had come to an acrimonious end and in the first three movements of the symphony, Walton picks the scabs of his emotional wounds. The Philharmonia bristled and gnashed its teeth in a fierce, taut reading, the highlight of its Anglo-French programme conducted by Nicholas Collon.

Nicholas Collon © Jim Hinson
Nicholas Collon
© Jim Hinson

Right from the start, the neurotic motif twitching in the second violins signalled nervous energy, accompanied by fidgety oboe. Collon coiled the orchestra tightly, eventually releasing a torrent of rage and despair. Double basses sawed relentlessly, as the bruising quality of this music pummelled the listener. The marking Presto con malizia tells you everything about the second movement – full of vindictive bile, the Philharmonia woodwinds vented their spleens in shrill frenzy. From acidic spite, Walton then slips into a ‘Slough of Despond’ for the slow movement, keening flute and wailing clarinet charting his spiralling descent into self-melancholy.

Walton struggled to complete his symphony. The first three movements were eventually performed in December 1934, but the finale wouldn’t come for another year. It’s an upbeat, pugnacious ending, as if someone had given the composer a good shaking and told himself to snap out of it. (It probably helped that he had fallen in love with Viscountess and society hostess Alice Wimborne.) The strings buoyed the spirits with a jazzy fugue, while trumpets and trombones were at their raucous best. Timpani (two players employed) and tam-tam helped bring this most triumphant movement to an emphatic, ecstatic close. Collon’s straightforward technique offered a clear beat with clipped baton flicks coupled by precise cueing, but it didn’t inhibit a fierce, deeply felt rendition – no frills, but plenty of thrills.   

That same clipped manner didn’t lend itself quite so positively to Ralph Vaughan Williams’ glorious Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis, missing a touch of expansiveness in a muscular reading. The Philharmonia strings played with warmth, however, and the group of nine players at the rear of the platform haunted the main orchestra, chords sustained like a sonorous organ. Yukiko Ogura deserves particular praise for her warm, nutty viola tone as the solo quartet passages glowed.

Before the Tallis Fantasia was composed, Vaughan Williams had spent three months in Paris studying with Maurice Ravel, who declared him to be "my only pupil who does not write my music". It’s difficult to imagine two more different styles, illustrated by the jarring jump from the ethereal chords of the Fantasia to the jazzy sophistication of Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G major. It received a youthful, swaggering rendition from Francesco Piemontesi, whose fingers pranced across the keyboard in the opening Allegramente, but the performance lacked suavity and panache, the Festival Hall’s Steinway sounding cloudy in the bass, woodwinds garbled and tongue-tied in the finale. Piemontesi lent a purposeful pace to the famous Adagio assai central movement, but longer-breathed lines are called for. Instead, it was the encore of Liszt’s Au lac de Wallenstadt that provided repose.