Classical Album Review: The British Project

By Jonathan Blumhofer

This is an all-English album whose strongest moments are mighty and who’s most intriguing piece is a revelation.

Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (CBSO) made waves (so to speak) two years ago with their recording of symphonies by Mieczysław Weinberg. Now they’re back with an all-English disc that uncovers at least one more of the 20th century’s hidden gems.

That would be the Suite from William Walton’s opera Troilus and Cressida. Walton’s 1954 score was a flop, though whether that owed more to the music, the libretto, the composer’s broadly conservative style – or some combination of the three (or, perhaps, something else) – is open to debate. Either way, today, those concerns are moot: Troilus and Cressida’s fundamental lyricism, brilliant orchestration, and clear dramatic structure simply make for engaging listening.

Certainly, that’s true of this Suite that was arranged after Walton’s death by Christopher Palmer. Its four movements offer a bracing summation of the opera, from the sumptuous Prelude to the surprisingly delicate Scherzo. The title characters are etched in the lush third movement while the swaggering finale builds to a tragic denouement.

In her account, Gražinytė-Tyla draws playing of marvelous purpose from her forces. Throughout, the CBSO sings: even the muscular moments of the outer movements are pliant and lyrical. There’s much to admire, too, in the woodwind section’s limber deliveries during the Scherzo as well as the surging strings and brasses in the third movement (“The Lovers”).

To be sure, Walton’s music channels the best of 20th-century Romanticism, from Puccini and Strauss to Erich Wolfgang Korngold and Miklós Rósza. But, throughout, his writing sounds essentially like the Walton of the First Symphony and Cello Concerto: rich, inventive, utterly secure expressively and technically – the selfsame qualities, as it happens, that might describe the CBSO’s present performance.

Elsewhere on the disc, the orchestra gives a fervent account of Edward Elgar’s short Sospiri and they wrap things up with a shapely, dynamic account of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ beloved Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis.

Only their performance of Benjamin Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem doesn’t quite work.

Conductor Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla. Photo:DG

Part of this, at least in the first movement, is a matter of tempo: Gražinytė-Tyla follows Britten’s metronome markings closely enough but manages to turn in a performance of the movement that is slower than the composer’s own (with the London Symphony).

More problematic is phrasing. Basically, this reading is choppy and ponderous: it feels like it’s constantly getting stopped in its tracks. Yes, when the “Con moto” section rolls around and everything picks up, the performance begins to click. But then it’s undone by the return to Tempo I in the recapitulation – which is also, weirdly, lacking in emphasis on the percussion-harp-piano attack on the downbeat of its first measure.

The subsequent two movements fare better, though only the finale – well-played and fluent – rises to the highest level.

Ultimately, though, this is an album whose strongest moments are mighty and who’s most intriguing piece is a revelation. While Gražinytė-Tyla is stepping down from the CBSO’s directorship in 2022, she’ll be subsequently returning to the ensemble as principal guest conductor. Let’s hope she’ll play and record some more Walton with them then – her feel for his style and voice is exemplary.

Jonathan Blumhofer is a composer and violist who has been active in the greater Boston area since 2004. His music has received numerous awards and been performed by various ensembles, including the American Composers Orchestra, Kiev Philharmonic, Camerata Chicago, Xanthos Ensemble, and Juventas New Music Group. Since receiving his doctorate from Boston University in 2010, Jon has taught at Clark University, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and online for the University of Phoenix, in addition to writing music criticism for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.

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