This is a Classic all right. I think that no conductor ever had a better handle on the music of Walton than Previn does. That goes both for Walton's early work, which is what I like best, and for the more introspective later pieces. On this disc it is all early stuff except for the Improvisations on a theme by Britten, and Britten's influence on that makes it my favourite among Walton's later offerings, so it seems I am getting the best of every world to that extent. Add to this excellent work by the soloist John Shirley-Quirk, the incomparable LSO and chorus and a recording that is better than average for the early 70's and we have a very recommendable issue here indeed.
I should say however that for purposes of comparison I used my LP version of Belshazzar's Feast, with Donald Bell as soloist and the Philharmonia forces under the baton of no less than Walton himself. This was well recorded by the standards of 1959, but it still shows the engineering from more than a decade later in a favourable light. The 70's standards in that matter have in their turn been overtaken and third-millennium quality is not to be expected, but I feel you should have no complaints with the sound here. The only point at which it showed its age, I thought, was at `Yea, if I prefer not', where the music goes quiet and also seems to recede into the background in a way that we were once used to.
Previn's concept of the work is very similar to Walton's. However I am not recommending Previn as some clone of Walton but because he is excellent in his own right. Walton was a competent conductor unlike, say, Delius, whose endeavours in that field have been described entertainingly by his friend and admirer Beecham. I suppose the truth is really that there is one right way of doing Belshazzar's Feast and an infinity of wrong ways, and that Previn heard from Walton what he would have worked out for himself anyway. I even had the impression that Previn expresses awe in the quiet choral sections early on even better than Walton does, although I suppose the recorded quality could largely account for that. In terms of the solo part, Shirley-Quirk is first rate as you would expect, never mind who else is good elsewhere. The main difference between his approach and Bell's that made an impression on me was `And the souls of men', done by Bell in a threatening and forward manner and by Shirley-Quirk with sinister understatement.
The orchestral work is superb, again predictably. The recording does proper justice to the thrilling background sound as the Moving Finger writes, and I wonder how many feel as I do that Walton is actually thinking less cinematically here than Handel, whose creepy minimalist effect would be perfect for a screened version. The disc is filled out by two familiar overtures, both done with the debonair stylishness that has characterised much of Previn's work, plus the Improvisations on an Intermezzo by Benjamin Britten. This is a rather coy way of talking about variations on a theme by BB, and the theme in question is from the slow movement of Britten's piano concerto. Britten treats it there as the basis for his own variations, so our expectation is fully justified that Walton would not do such a thing if he were not satisfied that he was giving of his own best. I suspect that many a music lover hearing a passage from Walton's variations out of context would guess the composer as Britten rather than Walton, and all the better for that if so. What Walton, at least in his early works, had in common with Britten, and also with Elgar and Delius, was a totally unmistakable voice of his own. The trumpets sound for him on the other side for distancing himself from the hedgerows'n'Housman school, the Celtic roots brigade and even the English folk-song retreaders (from which class I except Britten himself). Walton brought a metropolitan smartness to this sleepy agricultural scene, enlivened further by a touch of film-music idiom, and it was all badly needed. He also creates an oratorio that has nothing in it that recalls Handel except quality, in marked contrast to many offerings which have tried to pastiche Handel with mortifying results. One thing that marks Handel out is the individuality of his vocal line. Walton is not a phenomenon in the same league as Handel, but he shares with him that rare and elusive achievement.
There is quite a good liner commentary on the oratorio by Christopher Palmer in 1989, and also some descriptive remarks on the orchestral pieces put together from material by Alan Frank and Edward Greenfield in the 70's. It all makes a top-class issue, and if I have by any chance been too favourable to the recorded quality because I played this disc back to back with Walton's, then perhaps the best solution is to get hold of Walton's as well if that is still possible and do just what I did.