“The RSNO goes from strength to strength in its legitimate aspiration to world class status.”
Whilst there are a number of music critics who cannot even read music, let alone play a musical instrument, I take nothing away from their appreciation and interpretation of the genre, after all, you do not need to be a painter to appreciate art, or a writer to appreciate literature. Moreover, those of a similar trade are not always especially kind to their colleagues.
The reason I write this is that as a lifelong choral singer one of the reasons I wanted to review Sir William Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast was that, conversely, I have never sung it (although I know the work very well having first come across it in my teens). This is because it is fiendishly difficult to sing. I have pleaded with several chorus directors at the beginning of the season to include it in the programme, only to be met with a sad refusal – I bet the chorus director wished we were good enough to sing it too.
So any choir that gets up and sings Belshazzar’s Feast has my immediate respect no matter what sort of a hash they make of it, which, of course, they don’t. The RSNO on Friday were no exception.
The work is just short of 40 minutes so does not of itself a programme make. The RSNO, always creative in its programme configuration, excelled itself on this its season finale. We started with Sibelius’s Suite, Belshazzar’s Feast. Ever heard of it? I hadn’t. Sibelius wrote it for a theatre production for his friend Hjalmar Procope’s play of the same name in 1907 and it was premiered along with his third symphony. The music fared better than the play and was reworked into a suite of four pieces lasting around a quarter of an hour. Apart from a suggestion of an oriental bazaar in the opening moments of the first piece with cymbals, strings and woodwind it was superseded by Sibelian Nordic overtones and did little to convey the majesty of Babylon, more Fry’s Turkish Delight and a picnic in Scandinavian Sylvania. Well played it made for a pleasant opening number.
I cannot think of a cogent reason to include Elgar’s Cello Concerto other than it is a magnificent work and tonight was played by a Norwegian, Truls Mork, thereby channelling a somewhat tenuous Scandinavian connection with the Sibelius, I suppose. In his introduction Music Director Thomas Sondergard said more or less the same. For music writers of my age it is near impossible to get beyond the Jacqueline du Pre/Barbirolli recording of 1965 (subsequently surpassed in passion, if not interpretation, with husband to be Daniel Barenboim in 1974). So what of Truls Mork? A salutary lesson in experience trumping prejudice. Mork took no prisoners in the opening Adagio-Moderato which he played with authority and conviction, rich tone, and was clearly going to play second fiddle to no predecessor. Nailing the dramatic moving up the scaleup the scale crescendos he avoided schmaltz yet still was able to convey every inch of restrained yet total emotional commitment. Another rebuke to those who say only the English can truly convey Elgar. The subsequent movements showed not only mature bravura playing but a real connection with the orchestra, the more surprising he had not played with them for six years. Bravo, this alone made the evening a worthwhile lesson in musical appreciation. A fine performance.
And now to the main event, the post interval audience suitably armed up for this brash, full on choral onslaught that is Sir William Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast. First, hats off to the 100 plus RSNO chorus, all amateurs, who sang with precision, clarity and conviction in this immensely difficult to sing piece with its chromatics, close harmonies and dissonance, including shouting “Slain” completely together and extremely loud after the famous “Mene, Mene Tekel Upharsin” This chorus had most certainly not been weighed in the balance and found wanting. Take a bow, Chorus Director Gregory Batsleer.
Baritone Anthony Clark Evans provided a rich dramatic and suitably sinister narrative and was amply suited for the part. The orchestra was spot on all the way through this full-on unrelenting work. Three trombones made the noise of six to open proceedings and along with the clear diction of the chorus we were all (the men at least) made to feel a teeny bit uncomfortable with the opening from Isaiah “They shall be taken away and be eunuchs”. Some of the most glorious short orchestral passages accompanied “Praise ye the God of Gold…” and “Thus in Babylon, the mighty city, Belshazzar the King made a great feast….” And all guns blazing in the finale “Then sing aloud to God our strength…Alleluia!”
Sometimes dismissed as all brass and noise, and eschewed by Sir Thomas Beecham as “a work which shall never be heard again” Belshazzar’s Feast is now rightly thought of as the most important English choral piece since Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius some 30 years before, both in their very different ways being essentially about redemption.
This evening brought to a close in Edinburgh the RSNO’s first season under Thomas Sondergard as Music Director. It has been a record season in terms of attendance, including, most encouragingly, a big increase in attendees under 26 years old. This is not the first, and I am confident will not be the last, occasion when I write “The RSNO goes from strength to strength in its legitimate aspiration to world class status.” Well done, friends.
Reviewer: Charles Stokes (Seen31 May)
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