Shakespeare’s Words Echo Amid the Music Those Words Inspired

09.18.11
Christopher Plummer
The New York Times

By Allan Kozinn

For an orchestra that has not yet opened its season, the New York Philharmonic has been awfully busy. In the last two weeks it played two performances of “West Side Story,” offered Mahler’s Second Symphony as a 10th anniversary commemoration of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and accompanied Andrea Bocelli in Central Park. It topped off the list on Saturday evening at Avery Fisher Hall with a program built around William Walton’s film score for Shakespeare’s “Henry V.”

In what sense is the orchestra’s official season opener on Wednesday evening really the start of its season? And why was this mostly Walton concert (the program included the Overture and Bacchanal from Wagner’s “Tannhäuser,” which has a brief echo in Walton’s score) a one-off rather than a subscription concert? It packed the hall, and to judge from the lines snaking around the lobby, it probably could have done so a few more times.

Walton fans and film buffs will know the music here from the 1944 version of “Henry V” directed by and starring Laurence Olivier. Its strength lies in its combination of wholly original music and era-evoking pastiche. To suggest Shakespearean England for the film’s opening scene at the Globe Theater and the glimpse of Falstaff’s death, Walton drew on pieces from the “Fitzwilliam Virginal Book” (specifically Giles Farnaby’s “Rosa Solis” and the anonymous “Watkins Ale”). Walton also used the 15th-century “Agincourt Carol,” a patriotic hymn to the 1415 English victory around which the play revolves, as well as a few French folk songs, borrowed from Canteloube’s “Chants d’Auvergne.”

Walton never assembled a full concert suite, but others did, including Muir Mattheson, whose version Walton conducted for a 1963 recording. Mr. Gilbert bypassed that edition, leading the Philharmonic instead in Christopher Palmer’s far more ambitious “Henry V: A Musical Scenario After Shakespeare.” Commissioned by Christopher Plummer, the actor, and Neville Marriner, the conductor, for 1990 performances (and a recording, on Chandos) with the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, Mr. Palmer’s score uses about 90 percent of the film music and interpolates (for the embarkation scene) a 1959 march that Walton wrote for a television version of Churchill’s “History of the English-Speaking Peoples” that was never made.

Mr. Plummer, on hand for the Philharmonic performance, gave a powerful account of the excerpted text, drawn mostly from Henry’s speeches, with occasional sections from other characters, and the scene-setting chorus. He delivered his account from memory (and amplified by way of a wireless microphone), striding freely across the small ribbon of stage in front of the orchestra, and creating a sense of the play’s narrative and sweep.

Mr. Gilbert and the orchestra were at their best: the players’ sumptuous sound, tight ensemble and spirited execution made a strong case for Walton’s updated orchestrations of the Renaissance pieces and pointed up the ingenuity of his own characteristically descriptive scoring (most notably his vital, recurring “Spirit of England” motif). The work’s mostly wordless choral music was sung robustly by the Manhattan School of Music Symphonic Chorus and Chamber Choir and the American Boychoir.

The Wagner, offered as a short first half, also benefited from solid, well-tuned brass playing, and rich, focused woodwind and string work, and an approach to pacing that was cautious and thoughtful at first, and then, thankfully, gave way to the sheer visceral quality that suffuses Wagner’s score.