Belshazzar’s Feast – Walton

Tonbridge Philharmonic Society’s programme of music by English composers was excellently chosen, Vaughan Williams’ overture The Wasps and the Five Mystical Songs providing a sparkling aperitif followed by some moments of calm reflection before we were launched into the barbaric ferocity of Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast, or ‘Belli’s Binge’ as the composer called it!

The Philharmonic orchestra was on fine form. Ably led as ever by Penny Morrish their performance of The Wasps overture was thoroughly enjoyable with excellent playing in all departments, especially the strings. Given that the bass-baritone soloist in Belshazzar has relatively little to sing it was a good decision to invite him to perform The Five Mystical Songs. Piran Legg, a superb young bass already embarked on a fine career, sang these exquisite settings of George Herbert’s poems most musically, dropping to a magical pp when required and filling the chapel with glorious tone at the climaxes. The seated chorus accompanied with sensitivity and excellent tuning, rising to their feet to give a splendidly confident and committed performance of the Antiphon Let all the world in every corner sing.

And so, to the main event. Belshazzar’s Feast is arguably the greatest, certainly the most exciting, and surely the most enjoyable work to be written by an English composer in the years between Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius and Britten’s War Requiem. It is also one of the most difficult, needing huge resources and making immense technical demands on singers and players alike. Hence, opportunities to hear a live performance are relatively rare so it was disappointing to see such a small, if appreciative, audience.

Walton’s writing for the chorus is wonderfully exuberant, but demands colossal energy and stamina: how do you sustain a top A for 8 bars ff, only to be asked to do it all over again half a page later, as well as coping with jazzy cross rhythms, tricky entries and chromatic close harmony? Such difficulties can seem insuperable and it is a credit to all that so much was achieved. A feature of this great work is its narrative drive. There are also glorious expansive moments of pathos and beauty supplied by the chorus in passages that are marked pp especially in the opening ‘By the waters of Babylon’ and even more importantly at the magical words ‘The trumpeters and pipers are silent’. It was sad that these passages which can be so moving and were composed to be sung unaccompanied required instrumental support on this occasion.

That said, this performance had drama in plenty. Robin Morrish set commendably steady tempi. The gods of gold, silver, wood, brass, iron were praised with virtuosic vigour in brass and percussion (indeed, the orchestra played with terrific energy throughout) and following Piran Legg’s spine-curdling account of ‘Mene, mene, tekel upharsin’ (Thou art weighed in the balance and found wanting) Belshazzar was duly dispatched with a ‘SLAIN!’ that must have been heard half-way down the High Street! There follows one of the most vivid depictions of a rave in all music, and so, the finishing straight having been finally reached and the Philharmonic’s chorus and orchestra having joyfully united to give Walton’s riotous Alleluias their thunderous all, it was right that the audience erupted in well-deserved applause.

  Charles Vignole