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22 Aug 2019

BBC Prom 44: Rattle conjures a blistering Belshazzar’s Feast

This was a notable occasion for offering three colossal scores whose execution filled the Albert Hall’s stage with over 150 members of the London Symphony Orchestra and 300 singers drawn from the Barcelona-based Orfeó Català and Orfeó Català Youth Choir, along with the London Symphony Chorus.

Prom 44: Sir Simon Rattle conducts Orfeó Català, Orfeó Català Youth Choir and the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus

A review by David Truslove

Above: Gerald Finley

Photo credit: BBC/Chris Christodoulou

 

It was very much a ‘pictures in sound’ affair, an orchestral and choral jamboree variously capturing the atmosphere of tropical forest, city soundscape and Babylonian excess in three 20th century works, all given efficient direction by Sir Simon Rattle.

The evening began with Charles Koechlin’s rarely heard symphonic poem Les bandar-log, an evocative and eclectic orchestral realisation (a ‘monkey scherzo’) completed in 1940 and inspired by a French translation of Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book which appeared at the turn of the century. Koechlin’s outsize orchestra is often used sparingly with numerous chamber sonorities (including one extraordinary passage for strings employing six different keys) and in his idiomatic portrayal of a troupe of monkeys the composer constructs a satire on newfangled modes and manners of contemporary music, travelling in time to mock French impressionism, serialism and neoclassicism (in the shape of a rather dull fugue). It’s an anarchic and virtuosic score brimming with invention that glows with febrile excitement and mystery, all conveyed with a wry wit from Rattle and a gleefully committed orchestra - the percussion section in their element.

Another seldom heard score followed with Edgard Varèse’s Amériques given here for the first time in its original 1921 version. Often referred to as an urban Rite of Spring, Amériques is an audaciously futuristic work (just as Charles Ives’s Central Park in the Dark was in 1906) which references both Stravinsky and Schoenberg. It’s a vast love poem to Varèse's adopted country, specifically New York where, from his apartment, he could hear “the whole wonderful river symphony which moved me more than anything ever had before”. There was no shortage of evocative shrieks and wailings from an 18-string percussion section, including two wind machines, which with other expanded instrumental groups collectively brought to life the city’s frenzied-sounding activity. But its twenty-five minutes seemed over long, the great sound masses, mechanistic power and loneliness of a distant trumpet (bringing to mind Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks) didn’t quite have the impact I’d anticipated - certainly no deafening onslaught, more a repetitious assemblage of newly-minted sonorities that ultimately outstayed their welcome despite orchestral playing of energy and precision.

This last quality was mostly realised in Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast for which the composer devised a score of grand proportions (though not as wildly ambitious as Havergal Brian’s ‘Gothic’ Symphony from a few years earlier) including two (antiphonally placed) brass bands which had been rashly suggested by Sir Thomas Beecham prior to the work’s Leeds premiere in 1931. Next to Koechlin and Varèse’, Belshazzar’s Feast seemed almost rather ordinary, yet to pull off this extraordinary work with the necessary degree of conviction is no small ask. By and large it all worked, but even with the combined voices of the adult and youth choirs of Orfeó Català and the London Symphony Chorus their contribution felt occasionally underpowered and the brief semi-chorus passage was not quite as confidently delivered as it might have been. That said, the opening was strikingly assured, with plenty of heft from the men’s voices and the lament of the Jews had just the right degree of fervour. It was the singing of the more jubilant choral writing that never quite convinced, lacking absolute crispness that would otherwise have brought compelling rigour to the proceedings. It didn’t help that Rattle pushed a little too hard for the closing ‘Alleluias’. Yet there were some bewitching moments, not least the jazzy rhythms (finely sung) and ear-tickling percussion that accompanied the worship of the Gods and the haunting writing on the wall with an arrestingly choral “slain”.

Gerald Finley brought to the score his customary polish with his clear-toned baritone, and his ‘shopping list’ itemising the riches of Babylon was sung with emphatic relish. While the LSO provided deft and dancing support under Rattle’s vigorous baton, the performance never quite gripped as much as the music itself.

David Truslove

Gerald Finley (baritone), Sir Simon Rattle (conductor), Orfeó Català, Orfeó Català Youth Choir, London Symphony Chorus, London Symphony Orchestra

Royal Albert Hall, London; 20th August 2019.

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