Philharmonia Orchestra Concert – 24th February

Overture – Portsmouth Point
Viola Concerto
Belshazzar’s Feast

Tabea Zimmermann (viola)
Matthew Best (bass)
London Symphony Chorus
Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Richard Hickox

Reviewed by: David Wordsworth

Reviewed: 24 February, 2002
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

The Walton Centenary Festival at the South Bank Centre got off to an excellent start with two of the composer’s finest and most popular works from the early years of his career. Before the bustling Portsmouth Point, Lady Walton (complete with spectacular hat!), her husband’s most determined and redoubtable supporter, gave an impromptu introduction proclaiming Sir William’s genius, which tonight was plain to hear.

Portsmouth Point, one of the shortest and busiest overtures in therepertoire, made a sparkling opening, the Philharmonia pointing the jazzy syncopations with precision and flair. Tabea Zimmermann, who must have some claim to be the world’s finest viola player, gave the fastest and probably the most impressive account of Walton’s 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 – someof this credit must surely be due to Richard Hickox’s 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 – Belshazzar’s 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 one’s breath at the sheer brilliance of Walton’s 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 toshow 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 Sitwell’s 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 doesn’t seem to be the right thing to do, especially with one as grand as Walton’s 1937 Coronation March, Crown Imperial. However, it is very difficult to follow Belshazzar, especially after such a good performance.

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