Philharmonia Orchestra & St John’s Choir, Cambridge/Nethsingha – Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast … Parry’s I was Glad

In the South (Alassio) – Concert Overture, Op.50
One thing I have desired of the Lord
Jonathan Harvey
I love the Lord
A spotless rose
I Was Glad
Belshazzar’s Feast

David Stout (baritone)

St John’s College Choir, Cambridge
Caius College Choir, Cambridge
Clare College Choir, Cambridge
Jesus College Choir, Cambridge
Trinity College Choir, Cambridge

Philharmonia Orchestra
Andrew Nethsingha

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 15 December, 2011
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Two London performances of Belshazzar’s Feast in less than a week: very welcome, but neither quite satisfied (for different reasons – there’s a link to Edward Gardner’s conducting of it below) or erased the ‘thrills and spills’ account that Andrew Litton led earlier this year (link also below), yet each reminded what a masterpiece Belshazzar’s Feast is – ‘English Oratorio’ factually if not in spirit or tradition.

This concert, supported by the London Women’s Clinic, celebrated the quincentenary of the founding of St John’s College, its Choir (singing music by former ‘Johnians’, Herbert Howells and Jonathan Harvey) joined by collegiate Cambridge choruses for the Parry and Walton. Andrew Nethsingha, Director of Music at St John’s, conducted, and did so lucidly and assuredly, but these are not the only qualities needed for Belshazzar’s Feast to blaze with pagan swagger; the Feast itself was a little under-tempo, more like afternoon tea, although there wasn’t any doubting the preparedness and enthusiasm of the combined choirs, or the professionalism of the Philharmonia Orchestra, but it was a little safe, contained. The two brass bands were antiphonally placed on either side of the platform (Litton used the boxes for greater width and perspective, and quite why these extra brass-players turned up ten minutes into the performance and stole their own thunder by doing so was a logistical miscalculation). We had the optional piano (Nethsingha 1, Gardner 0) even though it wasn’t needed for any of the other pieces. Yet, for all the extravagance, the Philharmonia fielded ‘only’ eight cellos and six double basses, two personnel down in each section and sounded respectively thin and lightweight. David Stout was a plain-speaking orator; he gave us the facts, and introduced a well-timed pause before “And the souls of men.” Overall, the opening lamenting was a little angular, if adding to the Babylonians’ desolation, the subsequent carousing could be dainty, and Belshazzar’s demise needed to be more eerie. No worries with the choral celebrations after “Slain!”, which really did raise the roof, everyone giving their all.

The concert opened with In the South, Elgar’s orchestral picture of Italy, well-paced to capture expansiveness and purposefulness. Not all details were fully revealed, though, and trombones were often too loud, drowning colleagues. There was some effective expression (even the occasional portamento), emotionally underpinned, and an eloquent viola solo (Rebecca Chambers), a poetic horn contribution (Katy Woolley), and felicitous offerings from the woodwinds. There was a glow to the panoramic coda.

Three a cappella items were exclusive to the trebles (retained for Walton) and gentlemen of St John’s Choir, Howells’s One thing… taking us to another place, and his Spotless Rose returning us home. Jonathan Harvey’s plaintive and benedictory setting found these singers to be young-masters of tone, blend, syllable and inflexion. To close the first half, Charles Hubert Hastings Parry’s magnificent version of I was Glad was given a resounding and properly spacious account. Not sure that Sir Charles asks for six trumpets, but it worked and was a great triumph for the Cambridge choristers.

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