Overture Portsmouth Point
Tabea Zimmermann (viola)
Matthew Best (bass)
London Symphony Chorus
Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Richard Hickox
Philharmonia Orchestra Concert - 24th February
Sunday, February 24, 2002 Royal Festival Hall, London
Reviewed by David Wordsworth
The Walton Centenary Festival at the South Bank Centre got off to an excellent start with two of the composers finest and most popular works from the early years of his career. Before the bustling Portsmouth Point, Lady Walton (complete with spectacular hat!), her husbands most determined and redoubtable supporter, gave an impromptu introduction proclaiming Sir Williams genius, which tonight was plain to hear.
Portsmouth Point, one of the shortest and busiest overtures in the
repertoire, made a sparkling opening, the Philharmonia pointing the jazzy syncopations with precision and flair. Tabea Zimmermann, who must have some claim to be the worlds finest viola player, gave the fastest and probably the most impressive account of Waltons masterly Viola Concerto I have ever heard. The tempo for the first movement seemed to be just that little bit too brisk; on the other hand, I have never heard the passage-work so clearly and brilliantly articulated some
of this credit must surely be due to Richard Hickoxs balancing of the orchestra. The long, elegiac melody of the first movement and the coda were given just the right combination of warmth, sentiment and rhythmic alertness which tended to highlight the not inconsiderable debt to Hindemith (the soloist at the first performance).
What better way to open the Walton Festival than with what must still count as his most spectacular work Belshazzars Feast, given here in all its Technicolor glory, complete with extra brass groups on either side of the huge orchestra. Seventy years after its premiere this work can still grip an audience from its opening grim fanfare to the final outrageous sequence of false endings. This was a particularly theatrical account, Richard Hickox drawing out some fine orchestral detail the piano, tuned percussion and harps, normally lost when conductors hurry to create a "big noise", where clearly audible and again caused one to catch ones breath at the sheer brilliance of Waltons orchestration. Unusually, Hickox milked the all-important silences for all they were worth which certainly helped the overall dramatic impact. Again some of the tempi, particularly in the final Alleluia verged on the uncontrollable but only just; when detail was so finely observed, and the Philharmonia was obviously relishing the chance to
show what it can do, it seems rather churlish to quibble!
Matthew Best was in commanding if occasionally booming voice, but the real stars of the evening where the London Symphony Chorus, drilled on this occasion by its new chorus-master, Joseph Cullen. Belshazzar might be deemed a baptism of fire for any incumbent, but here the chorus continued to demonstrate why it is regarded as the finest amateur chorus in London, if not the country. I cannot recall hearing Sitwells text spat out with such venom every word, even in the most overwhelming passages, was crystal clear, tonally and rhythmically alive beyond praise!
To complain about an encore doesnt seem to be the right thing to do, especially with one as grand as Waltons 1937 Coronation March, Crown Imperial. However, it is very difficult to follow Belshazzar, especially after such a good performance.