United Kingdom Ives, Feldman, Walton: Neal Davies (baritone), Edinburgh Festival Chorus, Royal Scottish National Orchestra, David Robertson (conductor), Usher Hall, 01.09.2012 (SRT)
Ives: The Unanswered Question
Feldman: Coptic Light
Walton: Belshazzar’s Feast
Festival 2012 ended with a bang with Belshazzar’s Feast, one of the most extrovert, ebullient works in the choral repertory. But the first half was a rather odd companion piece to it; a convoluted, sometimes strange exploration of subtlety and introversion.
Ives’ The Unanswered Question has a power way beyond its brief time span and it was beautifully played here, the sonority open and suggestive throughout, with the full space of the Usher Hall auditorium used by the different instrumental groups, be they the rich bed of strings, the disarmingly simple trumpet or the questioning winds.
I love the stasis that you get with Coptic Light, thirty minutes of rhapsody on the same tiny nugget of music that scarcely even qualifies as a melody. It reminds me more of rippling than of filtering light, like floating on an underground lake lit only by glow-worms. It’s hypnotic to listen to, and its repetitious nature must make it very difficult to play. However, its trance-like effect can be very powerful if you’re prepared to give yourself over to it. I’m not sure about David Robertson’s decision to blend the two works together without a break, though. It didn’t make musical sense beyond a comparison of the moods, and it left many audience members around me very confused when it came to the interval!
Confusion is blasted out of the water by Belshazzar, though, and what a way to send the 2012 festival out! It brought out the very best in all the performers. The augmented RSNO were hair-raising in the intensity of their playing, even if the volume control was rather relentlessly turned up to 11 most of the time. Neal Davies sang with clarion clarity and a thrilling ping that made you sit up and take notice, and David Robertson conducted the whole work like a white knuckle ride. The final pages were thrilling, as was the procession of the false gods, but he broadened out effectively for the opening section By the waters of Babylon, and he buoyed up the sound most convincingly for Davies’ beautiful singing of If I forget thee, O Jerusalem.
The award for the night, however, has to go the Edinburgh Festival Chorus who sang this piece from the inside out, and were obviously having a whale of a time doing so! In the opening declamation the men had that quality of directness that can pin you to the back of your seat, and the chorus never once let down the intensity for the rest of the work. Their singing during the procession scene bristled with intensity and the final hymn was excellent, though the in-your-face nature of the sound was perhaps a little unrelenting. Still, that’s Walton’s fault rather than theirs, and the intensity of the event was a fitting way to see the festival out.