Many of us would claim that Walton’s First Symphony is the greatest ever composed by a Briton, and Thursday’s performance by the CBSO would go a long way towards affirming that.
The American conductor Andrew Litton has delivered some searing accounts of the piece, not least with his own Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra (what an occasion that was at Symphony Hall and then at the Proms a few years ago!), and here the energy and emotional commitment he delivered were almost physically palpable.
What was clear right from the start was that Litton wanted to make it clear to the audience that they were in the presence of a masterpiece. Several times he declined to deliver the opening upbeat because of rustles in the pews, until at last the “Bernstein moment” (that great conductor’s dictum that there is only one possible instant upon which to launch a performance) arrived.
And immediately we were into the taut, grinding passion which colours all of the magnificent opening movement, inexorable, horns trilling defiantly, timpani a constant presence, and Litton all the while taking huge risks -- which, given this orchestra which seems incapable of leaving the top of its form, all came off. At the end, after the finale’s blistering fugue and desperately hard-won affirmation (though the Last Post-style trumpet does gainsay that), the sense of satisfied exhaustion on both sides of the stage was paramount.
Andrew Litton also brought us music from his own country, Charles Ives’ ‘Three Places in New England’, their mix of Debussyan impressionism, Satie-esque chaos theory and even Scott Joplin-style melancholy ragtime melding into a texture which could only result from this most fascinating of composers.
There were times in this occasional bedlam when Litton was virtually two conductors in one, and all the time he secured perfect balance between the layers, unfolding tempi which convinced as so natural.
Thus to a gem of a piano concerto, Prokofiev’s iconoclastic First, glitteringly steely, and every note so powerfully placed under the fingers of soloist Lise de la Salle. Her chording was emphatic, her terracing of the frequently three-stave piano writing was immaculate in its clarity, and it was a wonderful idea of Litton’s to place the glockenspiel player actually within the orchestra to make his important contributions as a foil to the imperious pianist.