BBC Prom 44: Rattle conjures a blistering Belshazzar’s Feast

It was very much a ‘pictures in sound’ affair, an orchestral and choral
jamboree variously capturing the atmosphere of tropical forest, city
soundscape and Babylonian excess in three 20th century works,
all given efficient direction by Sir Simon Rattle.

The evening began with Charles Koechlin’s rarely heard
symphonic poem Les bandar-log,

an evocative and eclectic orchestral realisation (a ‘monkey scherzo’)
completed in

1940 and inspired by a French translation of Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book which appeared at the turn of the century.
Koechlin’s outsize orchestra is often used sparingly with numerous chamber
sonorities (including one extraordinary passage for strings employing six
different keys) and in his idiomatic portrayal of a troupe of monkeys the
composer constructs a satire on newfangled modes and manners of
contemporary music, travelling in time to mock French impressionism,
serialism and neoclassicism (in the shape of a rather dull fugue). It’s an
anarchic and virtuosic score brimming with invention that glows with
febrile excitement and mystery, all conveyed with a wry wit from Rattle and
a gleefully committed orchestra – the percussion section in their element.

Another seldom heard score followed with Edgard VarËse’s AmÈriques
given here for the first time in its original 1921 version. Often referred
to as an urban Rite of Spring, AmÈriques is an audaciously
futuristic work (just as Charles Ives’s Central Park in the Dark
was in 1906) which references both Stravinsky and Schoenberg. It’s a vast
love poem to VarËse’s adopted country, specifically New York where, from
his apartment, he could hear “the whole wonderful river symphony which
moved me more than anything ever had before”. There was no shortage of
evocative shrieks and wailings from an 18-string percussion section,
including two wind machines, which with other expanded instrumental groups
collectively brought to life the city’s frenzied-sounding activity. But its
twenty-five minutes seemed over long, the great sound masses, mechanistic
power and loneliness of a distant trumpet (bringing to mind Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks) didn’t quite have the impact I’d anticipated –
certainly no deafening onslaught, more a repetitious assemblage of
newly-minted sonorities that ultimately outstayed their welcome despite
orchestral playing of energy and precision.

This last quality was mostly realised in Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast for which the composer devised a score of grand
proportions (though not as wildly ambitious as Havergal Brian’s ‘Gothic’
Symphony from a few years earlier) including two (antiphonally placed)
brass bands which had been rashly suggested by Sir Thomas Beecham prior to
the work’s Leeds premiere in 1931. Next to Koechlin and VarËse’, Belshazzar’s Feast seemed almost rather ordinary, yet to pull off
this extraordinary work with the necessary degree of conviction is no small
ask. By and large it all worked, but even with the combined voices of the
adult and youth choirs of OrfeÛ Catal‡ and the London Symphony Chorus their
contribution felt occasionally underpowered and the brief semi-chorus
passage was not quite as confidently delivered as it might have been. That
said, the opening was strikingly assured, with plenty of heft from the
men’s voices and the lament of the Jews had just the right degree of
fervour. It was the singing of the more jubilant choral writing that never
quite convinced, lacking absolute crispness that would otherwise have
brought compelling rigour to the proceedings. It didn’t help that Rattle
pushed a little too hard for the closing ‘Alleluias’. Yet there were some
bewitching moments, not least the jazzy rhythms (finely sung) and
ear-tickling percussion that accompanied the worship of the Gods and the
haunting writing on the wall with an arrestingly choral “slain”.

Gerald Finley brought to the score his customary polish with his
clear-toned baritone, and his ‘shopping list’ itemising the riches of
Babylon was sung with emphatic relish. While the LSO provided deft and
dancing support under Rattle’s vigorous baton, the performance never quite
gripped as much as the music itself.

David Truslove

Gerald Finley (baritone), Sir Simon Rattle (conductor), OrfeÛ Catal‡, OrfeÛ Catal‡ Youth Choir, London Symphony
Chorus, London Symphony Orchestra

Royal Albert Hall, London; 20th August 2019.

product_title=Prom 44: Sir Simon Rattle conducts OrfeÛ Catal‡, OrfeÛ Catal‡ Youth Choir and the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus
product_by=A review by David Truslove
product_id=Above: Gerald Finley

Photo credit: BBC/Chris Christodoulou