The evening’s piece de resistance, Belshazzar’s Feast, was eighteen months in the planning. For this mammoth composition, the choirs of Blackburn Music Society and Bolton Catholic Musical and Choral Society, augmented by members of other Choral Societies, occupied each side of the circle. The orchestra was joined by two off-stage six-piece brass bands, each comprising three trumpets, two trombones and a tuba. Again, Newall familiarised the audience with technicalities of the densely textured score; for example, initially playing the jazz elements ‘under tempo’ to demonstrate accentual stresses, and his amusing direction to play (and sing) this section ‘from the hips’, rather than from the score.
Osbert Sitwell’s libretto, based on biblical texts; Psalm 137 and the Books of Daniel and of Revelations, is narrated by the ‘anchor’ baritone soloist. Briefly, exiled Jews are subjugated by the Babylonian King, Belshazzar, who holds a feast at which he drinks from sacred Jewish vessels, whereupon a message of his impending doom appears upon a wall. Belshazzar dies, Babylon falls and the Jews are freed.
Belshazzar’s Feast is challenging for orchestra and chorus alike. Walton felt that the great conductor, Malcolm Sargent, set the tempo perhaps a little slowly for the debut performance in Leeds, (1931). The same accusation could not be levelled at Newall; this performance, although brisk, was nonetheless well-modulated. All sections of the B.S.O. responded supremely to the richly orchestrated score, with its alternately elegiac passages, jagged rhythms, discords and jazz motifs. The sonorous strings, woodwind cadenzas, brass fanfares and percussion heralding ‘Praise Ye’, the eerie handling of the ‘Writing on the Wall’ motif and subsequent sense of ‘otherworldliness’ accompanying ‘The trumpeters and drums are silent’ were particularly notable for the reviewer.
During the cantata’s ten delineated, yet continuous sections, the choir have passages when they are silent, and in that the vocal score bears little resemblance to what happens in the orchestra, a highly competent conductor is needed to give good entry leads. During the entire performance, I detected neither ragged entries nor awkward segues. Another, all too rare, and much appreciated feature, was Louis Hurst’s and the choral singers’ crystalline clarity of diction throughout.
The final recapitulation of ‘Then sing aloud to God our strength’ with full orchestral and majestic organ accompaniment rightly elicited thunderous applause from an enthusiastic audience. I last heard the Hallé orchestra and choir perform this cantata several years ago, and in the weeks preceding this performance, ‘swatted-up’ on several recordings, including Slatkin’s excellent version with the LPO and Thomas Allan. On Saturday evening, Newall’s version, with the BSO, under the capable leadership of Anita Levy, the incomparable Louis Hurst, BMS and BCMCS augmented by members of SCS, was equal, if not superior to, that recording. Eighteen months in the planning, and approximately 35 minutes of truly outstanding music making.
Dr Stella Pye
(Dr Pye’s full concert review is available here)