A man who followed the well-worn trajectory of brash young radical to titled establishment figure, William Walton seldom features in concert programmes these days. Even once-popular works like Façade have faded from view, with only his music for Olivier’s Shakespeare films enjoying any current prominence. So it was refreshing that the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra should choose his much-neglected Second Symphony as part of its new “Spirit of England” season, a prequel to the season proper which begins next month.

Edward Gardner © Benjamin Ealovega
Edward Gardner
© Benjamin Ealovega

Walton’s final symphony had a prolonged gestation. Originally a commission by the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra to celebrate its centenary, the work was finally delivered three years after its 'due date' to a reception that could best be described as tepid. This carefully structured, but somehow elusive, work seemed hopelessly conservative in an age dominated by the likes of Boulez and Stockhausen and not even the enthusiastic advocacy of big guns like George Szell could steer it to a regular place in the repertoire.

Even in as fine a performance as this one under Edward Gardner, it was easy to hear why this relatively brief (under half an hour) but richly textured work has struggled to be heard. Although displaying all Walton’s acknowledged gifts for orchestration, the absence of instantly memorable themes (‘pop’ music, if you like) and a passacaglia finale that seems merely repetitious on first hearing can make the symphony seem more a virtuoso exercise in style than a work of depth and feeling. But for anyone familiar with the piece, there was no doubting that Gardner had the measure of it. This was a performance that galvanised all sections of the CBSO, reaching a peak of expressiveness in the central Lento assai movement – considered by Michael Kennedy to be a character study of Cressida, the mercenary courtesan from Walton’s contemporaneous opera Troilus and Cressida – where the violins and the woodwind created an inspired body of sound that was both seductive and sinister. Anyone with more than a glancing acquaintance with this score would have been delighted by such an exciting performance. Judging from their faces at the end, both conductor and orchestra felt they’d pulled off quite a coup!

Dating from immediately before the First World War, Butterworth’s ‘rhapsody for orchestra’ A Shropshire Lad is an altogether more approachable work, an evocation of the English countryside of the kind we are perhaps over-familiar with from the contemporaneous likes of Moeran and Delius. But this was a fine, sensitive performance of a difficult to programme piece, an evocation of the Housman cycle of poems which Butterworth had earlier set to music. Most of the burden of the work falls on the strings and woodwinds, whose reiteration of the rhapsody’s defining Dorian motif was powerfully expressive.

The longest item was Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto, given a matchless reading by Steven Osborne, the CBSO's Artist in Residence. Osborne’s virtuosity never fails to astound, and he proved himself as at home in this late classical piece as in his more familiar territory of Ravel and Messiaen. This was another confident performance with orchestra, conductor and soloist working in the ideal harmony required by a concerto of this kind and Osborne despatched the slow movement cadenza with a welcome absence of showiness. Although this is a classical concerto, Osborne and Gardner paid careful attention to those aspects of it that anticipate the Romantic, reminding us of Beethoven’s role as a real-life Walther von Stolzing, an innovator who respected his heritage. Beethoven also supplied tonight’s opener in the form of the Egmont Overture, another orchestral warhorse which allowed the CBSO to show itself off with the sense of drama and dynamics Gardner coaxed from all sections. A Beethoven Bagatelle restored calm after a rumbustious account of the Rondo.

Any incongruity in the programme – half German/half English under the title Spirit of England – is explained by the season’s expressed purpose of exploring  ‘Englishness’ in music through its connections and associations with the music of other European countries. However disparate they might at first have seemed, all the pieces had a satisfying wholeness, testament to the Gardner’s consistency: although often tagged as an ‘English music specialist’, there is far more to him than that!