Monday, 23 April 2007

"Let us not go to Camelot, 'tis a silly place."

The Edinburgh Choral Union perform Belshazzar's Feast

Scotland, and more particularly Edinburgh, is home to some very fine choruses indeed, that of the SCO is a particular favourite of mine. But they have their limitations: being partnered to a chamber orchestra means there are some works they can't realistically perform. Indeed, even in the fine performance Sir Charles Mackerras gave of Clemenza di Tito at the 2005 festival, they were supplemented by forces from the RSAMD (if memory serves, I can't find my programme and a web search hasn't turned up the answer - the EIF webpage lists only the SCO Chorus, but that wasn't the whole story). For many years a bigger sound was best obtained from the Festival Chorus; however, more recently this has not been the case. Indeed, on the last flyer I saw, they were using a quote describing them as one of the finest choruses in Europe, the problem: the quote from Herbert von Karajan who cannot have conducted them for at least 20 years. In part their decline is due to a lack of men (a number which has dwindled ever more in the years I have been attending). I have heard others attribute its problems to the fact it only performs for three weeks of the year. When it was formed (to perform Mahler's 8th) there was no large chorus in Scotland, now there are others, others that perform the year round. Either way, I could sense Mackerras's frustration in Beethoven's 9th symphony last year as they fell short of the standard reached by the best ensembles (though they did fare much better for Meistersinger). I did wonder if the problem might simply be due to a lack of good choral singers (or a lack of people willing to sing chorally). Then, almost exactly a year ago, this hypothesis was proved wrong as we heard the Choral Union in Elgar's The Kingdom. A stunning work (and in my view superior to Gerontius). Their precision and the quality of their sound was amongst the finest I have heard. It didn't hurt that they were accompanied by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under Martyn Brabbins.

So, their performance this year was a must. I had hoped, as I always do, for a Mahler 8. Instead we got Walton's Belshazzar's Feast, a work I only really knew from a Proms broadcast last year from Hickox and the BBC NOW. On the radio it hadn't grabbed me. But it's the kind of work that benefits from a live performance. But that wasn't until the second half.

The programme started with J B McEwen (totally unknown to me, and, it seems, Wikipedia) and the second of his three Border Ballads, that of Grey Galloway. And very enjoyable it was too. It reminded me vaguely of the sort of Americana that Copeland conjures in the finale of his third symphony (though listening to the latter last night, they don't really sound as similar as I thought when I was in the concert hall).

This was followed by Walton's first symphony. Again, with the exception the few exerts I've heard on the radio from the recent Davis LSO Live version, this work too was new to me (notwithstanding the fact the Mackerras recording has been sitting on my to be listened to shelf for quite some time). And what a fun piece it is. There are some wonderful climaxes, some interesting orchestrations and plenty of excitement. The orchestra, once again the BBC Scottish, under Rumon Gamba (who danced around a lot, but it seemed to have an effect so it didn't annoy) played wonderfully. But if I were to criticise the work I would suggest two flaws. I found the first movement far and away the most enjoyable. I also think it could be argued that he had a few too many ideas, which could have done with more room to breath.

And so, to the conclusion. Interestingly, it was commissioned by the BBC as a chamber work (they pulled out after the scale of Walton's composition started to become apparent and it was deemed unfit for broadcast). And you could see their point: so overflowing was the organ gallery that some of the singers were on the stairs. The Choral Union's forces were augmented by those of the Belfast Philharmonic Choir and the National Youth Choir of Scotland. Perhaps this scale, combined with the nature of the work, meant that I didn't feel it showcased the ensemble's vocal talents quite so well as The Kingdom did last year. The work itself is a setting of, or rather after, the bible. And Osbert Sitwell's word are certainly interesting in and of themselves. The orchestration is of the kitchen sink school, no implement is neglected, but at its finest. And, at times, bizarrest. Why does he choose to accentuate 'eunuchs' (the particularly unfortunate fate of the sons in the opening paragraph) and 'concubines' so? The sillyness is lent extra weight as reinforcements of trumpets force their way into the already crowded organ gallery about a third of the way in.

But I don't mean sillyness in a derogatory way. This is silly its glorious, finest sense. The full weight of which is unleashed as the false gods are praised. The gods of gold, iron, wood, glass and others (all brought off by percussion, some more successfully than others). But this series of climaxes is quite stunning and was brought off wonderfully (though in truth it lacks the out and out weight of, say, the 5th door in Bluebeard's Castle). The only problem is there's still about a third of the work to go and, to some extent, Walton has spent his biggest climax. When the writing appears on the wall and Belshazzar is 'WEIGHED IN THE BALANCE AND FOUND WANTING' (capitalised as in the programme, though the score doesn't really suggest this weight), it is somewhat underwhelming. And similarly the end, neither does it have the out and out tsunami of a Mahler 8, nor the quiet oblivion of the Verdi Requiem, but a rather unsatisfactory middle ground.

Apparently the Choral Union had just been in Belfast, but curiously they had not performed the Walton, doing instead Mendelssohn's Elijah. Part of me was a little sorry we didn't get that programme.

None of which is to say that it isn't enormous fun: it is. But I don't think it ranks among the greatest choral works. I wonder how well it would fare on a recording. Certainly I think it's the kind of work that makes for a good opening concert, but no one you'd want to hear too often. As I turned to Finn and whispered as the applause rang out "Let us not go to Camelot, 'tis a silly place."

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