Few choral works can match William Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast for sheer visceral power, whilst its ability to shock never diminishes, despite repeated hearings.
With the London Symphony Orchestra and the LSO Chorus on blazing form and Sir Colin Davis galvanising the huge assembled forces to go that extra mile, this Barbican performance was one that will linger long in the memory.
The LSO performed the premiere of Belshazzar’s Feast in 1931 at the Leeds festival this affords them a special affinity with the work, so Sir Colin Davis’ interpretation of Walton’s masterpiece was eagerly anticipated. Nor did it disappoint. The trombones’ opening fanfare which leads into the male chorus’ introduction of Isaiah’s prophecy remains one of the most thrilling introductions to any work and the gentlemen of the LSO chorus were gloriously full-blooded in their delivery of Walton’s dissonant choral writing.
From then on, it’s a rollercoaster of a ride even in more measured hands, but Sir Colin seemed to have thrown all caution to the wind, and never took his foot off the pedal once; the sense of forward propulsion was exhilarating and there were times when one feared that the swift tempos were going to prove too much for the choir and orchestra, but that only added to the excitement. Of course they never did. Both played and sang as though possessed and despite the fact that much of the piece is fff, it requires pinpoint accuracy from all performers, which it received here.
The hypercritical would have noticed a few consonants in the wrong place from the choir near the start, but that would be the only possible gripe. Otherwise this was the stuff of dreams for all those classical music adrenaline junkies in the audience. Peter Coleman-Wright used his forthright baritone voice to telling effect in his solos, especially in a trenchant delivery of the unaccompanied description of the city of Babylon. The entire performance rightly brought the house down. Imagine what it must have been like to hear this for the first time in 1931. Whilst many works lose the ability to thrill over time, 80 years on Belshazzar’s Feast remains as remarkable today as when it was new.
The first half of the concert was given over to a single work namely Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto which was given a wonderfully detailed, thrilling account from renowned pianist Mitsuko Uchida. The rapport between conductor and soloist was palpable, with Davis and the orchestra providing wonderful accompaniment. Uchida remains one of the most sought-after pianists the world over and on the basis of this account of the Beethoven, it’s not hard to see why virtuoso playing, glorious phrasing and exquisite concentration throughout made this performance unforgettable. There was a smattering of applause after the first movement this heinous practice has to be stamped on before it gets out of hand.
The good news is that this concert is repeated on Tuesday 30 September. Get a ticket if you can as there’s no doubt that this will prove to be one of the finest concerts of the season.