Guildhall School at Barbican Hall – The Soldier’s Tale & Belshazzar’s Feast

The Soldier’s Tale
Belshazzar’s Feast

Christian Burgess (narrator)
Soldier – Fred Lancaster
Devil – Patrick Osborne
Guildhall Chamber Ensemble
Martyn Brabbins [The Soldier’s Tale]

Gary Griffiths (baritone)
Guildhall Chorus & Symphony Orchestra
Martyn Brabbins

Reviewed by: Bob Briggs

Reviewed: 24 September, 2010
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

To start the Guildhall School’s new concert season, two works important to their respective composer’s careers, but for very different reasons – “The Soldier’s Tale” heralded Stravinsky’s neo–classical phase, and “Belshazzar’s Feast” turned Walton from an enfant terrible of the 1920s into a more respectable, albeit still dangerous, figure on the English musical landscape.

Martyn Brabbins. Photograph: Sasha Gusov“The Soldier’s Tale” is a morality with words by C. F. Ramuz and Stravinsky’s desiccated score points the soldier’s journey in a succinct and pithy style. Performed in the translation by Michael Flanders and Kitty Black the three actors worked well together, almost as one, as they told the story, bringing humour and pathos to it. What’s more, so good were their characterisations that, despite this being a concert performance – no acting or scenery, just Lancaster and Osborne in costume – one felt as if one had watched a full staging. My one reservation is that the actors were amplified and this caused their voices to come from several feet above their positions, the visual illusion shattered because the spatial divide was far too obvious. Martyn Brabbins wasn’t afraid to let his septet of musicians really play, but this caused occasional problems of balance. Bartosz Woroch deserves special praise for his playing of the virtuoso fiddle part.

Walton’s gaudy picture of dinner chez Belshazzar was vividly brought to life by Brabbins and his young charges. With a chorus of over 200 voices and an orchestra, with Walton’s extra brass groups placed in the circle, throwing all caution to the wind, this was an electrifying performance of a work which still has the ability, in the right hands, as here, to both thrill and scare the pants off you! This was a bold exposition of the music, hair–raising in its sheer exuberance and the delight the performers took in pointing the many startling harmonic twists and turns; it takes a special performance to make this happen. Gary Griffiths was an effective storyteller, but he employed a big vibrato which verged on the edge of wobble. This needs to be checked.

These performances were first class, made all the more so when one realises that they were executed on only a few days rehearsal. Full marks must go to the training of these young musicians for bringing the standard to such a height of excellence; a knock-out concert!

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