Belshazzar’s Feast

Last night I made my way through the foggy streets of Cardiff to St David’s Hall to attend a concert by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales (joined for the second half by the BBC National Chorus of Wales and Members of Bristol Choral Society) conducted by Martyn Brabbins for a programme of music by British composers, culminating in a performance of Belshazzar’s Feast by William Walton. The whole concert was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 and you can listen to it here on iPlayer for the next month.

The concert began with the “concert overture” In the South (Alassio) by Edward Elgar. I put “concert overture” in inverted commas because, at about 25 minutes, it’s a bit long for an overture and is really more like a tone poem. Elgar wrote most of it when on holiday in Italy in 1904. He was actually planning to write a full symphony but the inspiration he’d hoped to get from fine weather didn’t transpire because it was even colder and damper in Alassio than in his native Malvern. Incidentally, Alassio is in the North of Italy not the South. The music Elgar composed when the weather improved is not a full symphony, but a bright and colourful piece which comprises a number of episodes, some pastoral and some tempestuous. It’s richly orchestrated and served as an enjoyable warm-up for the musicians (and audience). Conductor Martyn Brabbins, by the way, was sporting an impressive beard which lent him extra gravitas on the podium.

The second item on the agenda was the Double Concerto for Violin and Cello by Frederick Delius, which provided an interesting contrast, from an overture that’s too long for an overture to a concerto that’s too short – at around 20 minutes in duration – to be a concerto. The two principals here were Tasmin Little (violin) and Paul Watkins (cello), both of whom played very well but the sound balance made the cello a little hard to hear over the rest of the orchestra, despite the fact the orchestra was pared down a little for this piece, with some of the strings and the percussion that was heavily used in the Elgar being removed. This work, which is rather rhapsodic in form, certainly has its moments of beauty – especially when the violin and cello combine – but overall I found it hard to discern an overall structure and sense of development. Perhaps I’m being harsh, though, as talk in the bar during the interval that followed immediately was generally very enthusiastic about this piece. Tasmin Little also appeared in the lounge to sign CDs and talk to fans.

After the interval was the main event, William Walton‘s sumptuous Belshazzar’s Feast. This was originally commissioned by the BBC in 1929 who asked for a “small-scale choral work” which would be suitable for a radio broadcast. I’m not sure what part of “small-scale” Walton didn’t understand, but he produced a work that required orchestral and choral forces far too large to be accommodated in the original studio venue, so it wasn’t performed until 1931 at the Leeds Music Festival. To be fair to Walton it is a fairly short work – about 35 minutes long – but it packs a huge range of choral and orchestra textures. It’s of the form of a cantata based on words taken from Psalm 137 (“By the rivers of Babylon…”) and the Book of Daniel, divided into a series of episodes that run into each other. It tells the story of Babylonian king Belshazzar who defiles the holy vessels of the Jews (who are in captivity in Babylon) by using the vessels to toast the heathen gods. A ghostly apparition appears in the form of a human hand which writes on the wall `MENE, MENE, TEKEL UPHARSIN’ (which is to say ‘Thou art weighed in the balance and found wanting’). Belshazzar is killed that very night, and his kingdom falls to bits.

For this piece the Orchestra was back up to full strength, with two additional banks of brass instruments in the tiers above and to either side of the stage and the might St David’s Hall organ was also deployed. Behind the main body of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales were the massed ranks of the singers: the BBC National Chorus of Wales and members of the Bristol Choral Society and on stage was bass soloist Neal Davies. They combined to produce a truly exhilarating performance. I loved every minute and was deeply impressed by the variety and expressiveness of Walton’s score. The end of the concert was greeted with rapturous – and richly deserved – applause. I’ve never heard this piece live before, only on record, and I’m very glad to have been able to hear it done so well in such a great venue with such great singers and musicians.

And then I was out in the cold again, walking back to Pontcanna. The fog was even thicker after the concert than it was before and I found my usual path through Sophia Gardens completely enshrouded in a mist so dense I couldn’t see where I was going. I had to make a diversion onto Cathedral Road where there was at least some illumination. When I got home I realized I hadn’t had any dinner so had a cheese sandwich. Not exactly a feast, but at least I didn’t defile any sacred drinking vessels either…

P.S. The next concert I’ll be going to at St David’s Hall is the traditional seasonal performance of Handel’s Messiah..

5 Responses to “Belshazzar’s Feast”

  1. Bryn Jones Says:

    I listened to the concert on the radio: the broadcast was very enjoyable too. The Elgar and the Walton were full of energy. The Delius was good, although I did not entirely get over my personal Delius problem.

    I once heard two Belshazzar’s Feasts in the same concert: the setting by Walton, and the suite by Sibelius (that was with the BBC Symphony Orchestra with Edward Gardner).

    There is a story that William Walton met Sir Thomas Beecham at the time he was working on Belshazzar’s Feast. Walton explained the scoring of the new music and the large forces it would require. Beecham is reported to have commented sarcastically, “Why don’t you throw in two brass bands as well? After all, nobody will hear it again.” So Walton did.

    • telescoper Says:

      I’ve never heard the Sibelius version. I must find a recording of it. Nicola Heywood-Thomas recounted that Beecham story in her introduction last night.

      One thing I didn’t mention in the post is that William Walton was only 27 when he started work on Belshazzar’s Feast. It’s an astonishing work for such a young composer.

      • Bryn Jones Says:

        I missed the Beecham anecdote on the radio: I must have turned the sound down before the start of the music. The anecdote is probably so well known now that it’s included in most introductions.

        Incidentally, I can remember extra brass sections being placed in balconies on either side of the stage in St David’s Hall for a performance of Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony (from the BBC NOW with Mark Wigglesworth).

        The other extraordinary large-scale composition by Walton from that period was the First Symphony. It’s an excellent piece.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        Shostakovich’s 7th is great!

  2. Anton Garrett Says:

    The reason that the “Rivers of Babylon” psalm is part of the tale is that Belshazzar is a king of Babylon at the time the Jews were in exile there from the Holy Land, which the Babylonians had invaded. Not only the Jewish people, who acted as slaves, but also the treasures from the Temple in Jerusalem, were taken away to Babylon. Daniel, although Jewish, became a trusted adviser to the king. The book of Daniel in the Old Testament states that, upon the defilement of the cups, God acts as described, and Daniel interprets the “writing on the wall” for the king. There is an extra-biblical record (Herodotus) that Medo-Persian forces dammed and diverted the Euphrates upriver of Babylon and marched along the riverbed into the city, whose walls made it otherwise impregnable. The Persian king let the Jews go home.

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