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Belsazar by Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (c. 1635)
13 Dec 2011

Belshazzar’s Feast, London

The English Oratorio season at the Barbican Hall, London continued with Gerald Finley and two very different approaches to Belshazzar’s Feast — William Walton and Jean Sibelius.

Belshazzar’s Feast — Benjamin Britten: Sinfonia da Requiem; Jean Sibelius Songs; Jean Sibelius Belshazzar’s Feast - Suite; William Walton: Belshazzar’s Feast

Gerald Finley, baritone. BBC Symphony Chorus. BBC Symphony Orchestra. Edward Gardner, conductor. Barbican Hall, London, 10th December 2011.

Above: Belsazar by Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (c. 1635)


For their 2011/12 season at the Barbican Hall, the BBC Symphony Orchestra are exploring all of the symphonies of Sibelius. So for their concert on Saturday 10th December, whose main work was Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast, it made sense to include Sibelius’s suite Belshazzar’s Feast based on music a wrote for a play, and in addition Gerald Finley, the baritone soloist in the Walton cantata, sang three of Sibelius’s songs with orchestra. To open, conductor Edward Gardner had chosen Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem, written just 8 years after Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast had been premiered.

The Sinfonia da Requiem was originally a commission from the Japanese Government, but Britten’s symphony with its Christian Pacifist sentiment was not acceptable to the Japanese and the work was premiered by the New York Philharmonic conducted by Sir John Barbirolli. It is one of only two works for full orchestra alone by Britten which include the word symphony in its title (the other is the Cello Symphony). In the Sinfonia da Requiem Britten does use traditional sonata form, but the work has a three movement structure with the music moving continuously from the opening ‘Lacrymosa’ (Andante ben misurati) to the concluding ‘Requiem Aeternam(Andante molto tranquillo), with only the central movement, ‘Dies Irae’ (Allegro con fuoco) being at a faster tempo.

Edward Gardner and the BBC Symphony Orchestra gave a strong performance which had an involving dramatic propulsion, reflecting perhaps both the composer’s and the conductor’s involvement with the operatic stage. Britten used a large orchestra but Gardner drew some very finely grained playing from the orchestra players.

The three Sibelius songs presented us with a microcosm of Sibelius’s wider career. ‘Kom no hit, död’ (Come away death) was originally written for a production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night in 1909, but was orchestrated by Sibelius in 1957, the final year of his life. It is a dark and mysterious piece, with harp arpeggios underlying the plain vocal line. ‘Pa verandan vid havet’ (On a balcony beside the sea) was a piece of existential angst setting a text by the Swedish symbolist poet Viktor Rydberg and was written in 1903. The orchestral introduction came directly from the world of Sibelius symphonies, catching the brooding despair of the poem. The austere vocal line helped bring out the music of the Swedish language and the piece concluded with an astonishing outburst at the end. Whereas the first 2 songs had been in Swedish, the final one, ‘Koskenlaskijan morisamet’(The Rapids-Rider’s Brides) was in Finnish. The poem by August Ahlqvist-Oksanen has strong links to the Kalevala and Sibelius’s setting dates from the same period as his Kalevala-inspired works such as the Leminkainen Legends. The piece is a long narrative lyric ballad with a tragic end. All three pieces were well put over by Finley, in each creating a small drama, but in the concluding moments of the ballad, Finley’s voice was in danger of being overwhelmed at the climaxes.

After the interval the Sibelius Suite from Belshazzar’s Feast consisted of four movements for small orchestra, all evoking the exotic oriental world of the play for which they were written (Hjalmar Procope’s Belshazzar’s Feast premiered in 1906), though still filtered through Sibelius’s own distinctive melodic voice. They formed an interestingly small scale prelude to Walton’s far larger work, though the completist in me did wonder whether something from Handel’s oratorio on the subject couldn’t have been included as well!

Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast is rather a large scale work to find onto the platform of the Barbican Hall. The work was originally premiered at Leeds Town Hall, not exactly a large venue but one with a platform able to accommodate far more singers than at the Barbican. This meant that the BBC Symphony Chorus fielded just 150 singers to battle it out with Walton’s huge orchestra. Edward Gardner’s approach to the piece took no prisoners as he emphasised the brilliant, 1930’s glitter of the work with both chorus and orchestra combining to give a bright, sharp edged account. It was unfortunate that in the dramatic recitation at the opening, the men of the chorus failed to find complete unanimity. Walton’s setting is not, of course, simply about noisy bombast, and there were many fine quieter moments when both orchestra and chorus gave us some fine poised singing and playing. In the semi-chorus section (‘The trumpeters and pipers’) a smaller group of the BBC Symphony Chorus delivered a nicely subdued performance whilst not quite erasing memories of the BBC Singers in the same passage.

As baritone soloist, Gerald Finley brought superb commitment and dramatic credibility to the role, making every single word of Walton’s recitatives tell. But Finley’s is not a huge voice and the price to pay for his intelligent delivery was the simple fact that at key moments his voice did not quite ride over the orchestra the way it should have done. The extra brass players were placed in the balcony of the hall, giving rise to some interesting aural and spatial effects. Gardener’s control of his huge forces was impressive. But his structuring of the work itself was such that he rather emphasised the gaps between the different sections, making the work a series of separate movements rather than a single dramatic whole.

London does not really have an ideal venue for Walton’s large scale cantata and it was interesting and enterprising of the BBC to try putting the work into the Barbican Hall. The BBC Symphony Chorus did a sterling job at projecting both words and music, but there were moments when the sound was just not quite massive enough. But a lot of the piece did work surprisingly well and the struggle between chorus and orchestra almost became part of the raison d’être of the performance.

Robert Hugill

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