High Drama and Great Singing in Belshazzar’s Feast

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Vaughan Williams, Elgar, Walton: Njabulo Madlala (baritone), Festival Chorus, Philharmonia Orchestra, Adrian Partington (conductor), Three Choirs Festival, Gloucester Cathedral, 2.8.2013 (RJ)

Vaughan Williams:  Prelude and Fugue in C minor
Elgar: Falstaff
Walton: Belshazzar’s Feast

It has to be admitted that as a concert venue Gloucester Cathedral is not ideal; its sister cathedrals at Hereford and Worcester possess much better acoustics. But the immense Norman pillars at Gloucester – like those at nearby at Tewkesbury Abbey – are inimical to crisp orchestral playing; the sounds just bounce back off them and reverberate around the building.

These musings occurred during the first work in this programme which originally saw the light of day as an organ piece, but was subsequently revised and orchestrated by Vaughan Williams himself. Both movements are dissonant with the structure owing something to Bach, but the musical elements became blurred in the louder passages (of which there were several). I rather feel that the original version played on Gloucester’s magnificent organ would have been much more satisfactory for the listener.

The acoustic was less of a problem with the other works. Elgar’s Falstaff was given a very sympathetic performance by Mr Partington and the orchestra. Indeed, the work itself is an unusually sympathetic portrayal of a knight from the past with whom a 20th century knight, such as Sir Edward, readily identified.  Unlike Verdi, who in his final work makes Falstaff look like a buffoon, the Worcestershire composer gives a more rounded picture:  in addition to scenes of merriment (in the Boar’s Head Tavern) and the humour and confusion in his various exploits there are quieter, more reflective passages where he dreams of his past.  There was some beautifully delicate playing here from the strings, while the brass and woodwind tended to get involved in the jollier bits and the marches. The final moments are tragic: as Falstaff waits to cheer the newly appointed king, his reward is complete rejection. Fortunately the similarity between character and composer ends there; Elgar’s star shines brightly in the musical firmament, and long may it do so!

One of the strongest impressions I have of this Festival is the high standard of singing from the Festival Chorus. Although not all its members are bright young things, they have sung with energy and commitment with performances that have drawn the admiration of audiences that have turned out to hear them and sometimes left them flabbergasted. The other evening I heard them in a stunning account of the finale from Beethoven’s ‘Choral’ Symphony – conducted by Geraint Bowen from Hereford Cathedral – with no recourse to sheet music, revealing it for the revolutionary and ground-breaking work it is. Tonight they were in action again for William Walton’s extraordinary Belshazzar’s Feast.

After the single note fanfare from the trombones the men of the chorus made a strong impact with Isaiah’s stern prophecy of the fate that would befall the Jews. After this came a delicate, wistful lament as the whole chorus became the captive Jews reflecting on their demise by the waters of Babylon. Enter the striking figure of Njabulo Madlala, resplendent in red. This young South African singer is tremendously versatile – he can sing anything from Lieder to opera – and is a talent to look out for.  Singing unaccompanied his voice rang out around the cathedral as he urged his fellow Jews not to be defeatist but to stay true to their faith.

Both orchestra and chorus then combined forces to convey the atmosphere of the bustling cosmopolitan city of Babylon, which eventually developed into an outpouring of orgiastic merriment and excess. Madlala rose to his feet again to launch, again unaccompanied, a sequence of praises to the Babylonian gods, and the Festival Chorus followed suit with evident relish. (I glanced over at the Bishop of Gloucester expecting to see signs of indignation at such pagan rituals taking place in the House of God, but he seemed unusually calm. Clearly he was well aware of outcome of the story!)

The deafening rhythms came to an abrupt halt as the baritone once more rose to his feet to describe dramatically the eerie appearance of the hand writing out judgement on Belshazzar. He then related in a matter-of-fact way how Belshazzar met his end and the consequences for his kingdom. This was a signal for an outbreak of rejoicing among the Jews with jazzy syncopated rhythms which rounded off the performance in an exhilarating, vibrant fashion.


Roger Jones