This concert given by the RPO under the expert baton of Andrew Litton, was conceived on a grand scale. It was a brave decision to open with Respighis grandiose Pines of Rome, as this large-scale work is usually reserved for the climax to an evenings music making, but when that honour befalls Waltons viscerally-exciting Biblical oratorio Belshazzars Feast, it made sense, given the huge orchestra necessary for the Walton, to open with the Italian composers paean to Rome.
Litton drew playing of iridescent splendour from the RPO, the opening Pines of Villa Borghese had colossal guts and drive, whilst the dank eeriness of the Pines near a catacomb positively dripped off the cellos and basses repeated motif. Respighi used a recording of a nightingale to close the third movement, The Pines of the Janiculum audacious in 1924, and still causing something of an audience frisson on this occasion. The final movement The Pines of the Apian Way depicts a Roman sunrise combined with the distant sound of marching footsteps the Roman army is on the move. This builds through a massive crescendo to blazing brass fanfares and given that extra brass were placed antiphonally in the audience boxes: the overall effect was shattering.
After that Mendelssohns Violin Concerto in E minor couldnt help but feel diminutive in scale. Soloist Daniel Hope was performing the original version, which contains over 100 changes to the version usually heard in the concert hall, which Mendelssohn amended under the guidance of violinist Ferdinand David. The opening of the first movement was too breathless, but Hope then settled to give a fine reading of this evergreen work with able support from Litton and the orchestra.
Waltons Biblical oratorio Belshazzars Feast was first performed in Leeds in 1931 and to say that it caused something of a stir is an understatement. Not only is it scored for a huge orchestra, organ, baritone soloist, two choirs and two brass bands, but it turned the notion of what an oratorio should be on its head. Brash, stark and visceral, Belshazzars Feast remains, for me at least, one of only a handful of works that retains the ability to shock on every hearing, and when its given a performance of such overwhelming power like this, not only are you left reeling but convinced that Waltons epic oratorio is one of the most outstandingly-original scores of the 20th century.
The demands made of the chorus are huge, yet the combined forces of the London Philharmonic Choir and London Symphony Chorus never put a foot wrong. In the declamatory phrases for the men which open the work, the combined lament to Babylon, the thrilling description of the feast, the celebrated shout of Slain or the orgiastic splendour of the closing celebration the precision, ardour and wonderful dynamic control of their singing simply blew you away. With Litton never letting the tension sag for one second, and sterling work from soloist Benedict Nelson, this was as spine-tingling a performance of this work as youre likely to hear. True, Ive heard more disciplined readings but for sheer visceral power this one was a complete knock-out!
Further details of Royal Festival Hall concerts can be found at southbankcentre.co.uk