Two Views of Belshazzar’s Feast

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Britten, Sibelius, and Walton: Gerald Finley (baritone), BBC Symphony Chorus, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Edward Gardner (conductor), Barbican Hall, London, 10.12.2011 (CG)

Britten: Sinfonia da Requiem, Op.20 (1940)
Sibelius: Kom nu hit, död, Op.60 no.1 (1909 orch. 1957); Pä veranden vi havet, Op.38 no. 2 (1902 orch. 1903); Koskenlaskijan morsiamet, Op.33 (1897)
Belshazzar’s Feast – Suite, Op.51 (1906-7)
Walton Belshazzar’s Feast (1929-31, revised 1931, 1948, and 1957)

Britten, Sibelius and Walton sharing the same concert? The BBC Symphony Orchestra is subject to some strange programme planning, but the works tonight made interesting bedfellows. The connection between Walton and Sibelius is not difficult to grasp: Walton was a great admirer of Sibelius, and in his First Symphony showed just how strongly the Finnish composer influenced him. But Belshazzar’s Feast shows Walton in an altogether different light, and its juxtaposition with Sibelius’s work of the same name showed just how different the thinking of the two composers could be. And Britten? A near contemporary of Walton, of course, but with his own unique musical language and thought processes.

His Sinfonia da Requiem is about the nearest Britten ever came to writing a purely orchestral symphony, and it certainly demonstrates that symphonic processes were very much part and parcel of his modus operandi. It is a fine work, immediately impressive, and with unfolding drama and an ingrained seriousness that displays Britten at his anguished anti-war best. Composed in 1940, much of this music hints at the War Requiem to come much later; thudding timpani, tortured melodies, snarling brass, whirling woodwind, and all the time a sense of Britten’s outrage. There are echoes of some other composers here – Mahler, and perhaps even Sibelius? Yet the 26-year-old composer was remarkably mature for one so young, and already had a sure control of form. The three movements, Lacrymosa, Dies Irae, and Requiem Aeternam, form a continuous whole, and individually have firm structures which carry the listener along a troubled route for twenty minutes or so, with only the last movement hinting at a degree of reluctant resolution. The commissioner of the piece, the Japanese Government, was not yet at war with Britain or the US, but rejected the piece because of its Christian connotations; ironic, then, that it has emerged as one of the most substantial not only of Britten’s works but also of the several other pieces simultaneously commissioned by the Japanese. Edward Gardner and his forces were in total command; the tempi felt just right, and with the BBC SO continuing to be at the top of its game this made for a powerful, committed and memorable performance; its sounds are still haunting me now, almost twenty-four hours later.

Gerald Finley was the soloist in three virtually unknown songs by Sibelius, which turned out to be delightful gems from the unmistakable hand of the master. Come Away Death, a setting of Shakespeare translated into Swedish, has simple muted strings and is bleakness personified. On a Balcony beside the Sea, to a text by Viktor Rydberg, has dark woodwinds and is imbued with a sense of isolation and desperation. The Rapids-Rider’s Brides (poem by August Ahlqvist-Oksanen) is larger in scale than the preceding two songs and hints strongly at the Sibelius of the early symphonies with its greater expansiveness and menacing brass, the latter even reminding us of Karelia. Finley was absolutely terrific, his vocal beauty enhanced by clear enunciation of every word, and Gardner was the most sensitive accompanist; this was exquisite music making of almost chamber music intensity.

Gardner continued to impress as a Sibelian in the Finn’s Belshazzar’s Feast. This music, the very antithesis of the Walton to follow, falls into four separate sections. The first, Oriental Procession, is a grotesque march. The second, Solitude, is a tiny but sweet miniature. The third, Nocturne, gave Michael Cox an opportunity to display some ravishingly expressive flute playing, and the fourth, Khadra’s Dance, seductive and delicate, reminded us what a fine clarinetist Chris Richards is. Sibelius opted for a whimsical, quasi Oriental, view of Belshazzar – as befitted pieces composed as incidental music for a play. What a contrast, then, to Walton’s monumental and exuberant cantata composed in his late twenties.

The gentlemen of the BBC Symphony Chorus got things off to a fine start with their opening declamation, and the full chorus followed, gently weaving their lines with wonderfully rich sonorities, to be joined by Gerald Finley in his plaintive “If I forget thee.” Once again combining noticeably fine diction with perfect intonation and sense of character, he took command of the proceedings with his long recitative and then we were plunged into sheer brilliance, as orgiastic and celebratory as you could want, for the rest of the piece. And you would have to be a real nitpicker to find any faults; the BBC Symphony Chorus sang with gusto and accuracy, the orchestra shot through the whole work with massive amounts of verve, and the brass, augmented by two groups up in the gods, were constantly thrilling. Gardner kept the tempi brisk, propelling things forward mercilessly. And, if I have to nitpick, the only thing I can find to say is that I wish this had been in the Royal Albert Hall, and it’s not often I’d say that! The Barbican hall, admirable though it is for such a variety of music, is just not quite man enough for music on Walton’s scale. Never mind. It was still a great evening, on this occasion narrowly won by the concert opener. That Britten – it really is a superb piece.

Christopher Gunning