Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Litton [Pines of Rome & Belshazzar’s Feast … Daniel Hope plays a Mendelssohn Original]

Pines of Rome
Violin Concerto in E minor, Op.64 [Original Version]
Belshazzar’s Feast

Daniel Hope (violin)

Benedict Nelson (baritone)

London Philharmonic Choir
London Symphony Chorus

Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Andrew Litton

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 31 May, 2011
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

There are not many pieces that can cap the closing and unrelenting splendour of Respighi’s Pines of Rome, but William Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast is one of them – thus the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and Andrew Litton were on an upward curve of pounding and pulsating emotion.

Andrew Litton. Photograph: Danny TurnerThis was a no-expense-spared concert employing not only a solo violinist and a solo baritone, but with the requirement to swell the orchestra with a pianist, an organist and extra brass-players (including the regulars there were 27 of them) for both the Roman and the biblical pieces (add a saxophonist, Kyle Horch, for the Walton). Andrew Litton was an enthusiastic advocate for the Respighi, the Royal Philharmonic responding in kind, a glittering children-at-play opening (albeit foreground details sometimes lost out to background ones), followed by the secretive stillness of the catacomb scene (with fine depth of string tone and an effective off-stage trumpet solo) rising to solemn grandeur, then the balmy and fragranced evening air was enlivened by the song of a nightingale (for which Respighi, way back in 1924, specified in the score the use of a particular recording, a shellac, but today the bird is no doubt of digital plumage, and was here a very lively chirruping) and, finally, legions of soldiers from Rome’s past, ghostly, militaristic, re-forming from shady black-and-white to glorious Technicolor, brass to the left of us, brass to the right – Cecil B. DeMille could not have brought it off with greater bravado. Also lingering in the memory are Tom Watmough’s rhapsodic clarinet-playing and a snake-charmer of a solo from Leila Ward on her cor anglais.

Daniel HopeMendelssohn’s E minor Violin Concerto (there’s another, rarely played, in D minor) is ubiquitous enough for its appearance in any programme to now be thoroughly underwhelming (ditto Bruch’s G minor counterpart), so it was good to find Daniel Hope, not for the first time in London, offering the rather different Original Version with its numerous differences of notes, pitch and scoring to what we are accustomed to, an altogether spikier work than it became. This was a rough-and-tumble account at first, too fast in its opening for Hope to articulate properly and hampered by intonation and technical problems, but there was poise and silkiness in slower sections, the violinist then settling and warming to his task, not shying away from Mendelssohn’s first, vigorous, thoughts – something less evergreen in character – nicely tempered here by an unsentimental Andante and a crisply moderated finale, all enjoying a spirited accompaniment. It was revitalising to hear the concerto in a different guise.

With two outstanding choirs (gentlemen in the middle, ladies either side) forming an impressive wall of sound, and with excellent diction and unfailing togetherness, Isaiah leapt into the Royal Festival Hall with commanding tone to invite us to Belshazzar’s Feast. Litton didn’t let up throughout the performance; it could be breathless and hard-driven, and there were moments when more atmosphere was needed and more leeway for the music to swing, but there was a collective will to bring it off, chorus-members lamenting, partying and celebrating Belshazzar’s downfall at the throw of a dice, singers and musicians creating many spine-tingling moments, not least a savage swagger and uninhibited debauchery; these were hedonistic revellers and the antiphonal brass exchanges were thrilling. Benedict Nelson (rich-toned and musically poised) did well with the ‘shopping list’ that precedes the “great feast” and he set up the moment Belshazzar is “Slain!” with skilful scene-setting narration. Too much a romp at times (some of the writing for percussion didn’t always hit the mark), the closing triumph was uplifting and moved the soul; and if Walton’s very meticulous score wasn’t always rendered to the letter the performance certainly caught its spirit and compelled attention throughout – and reminded what a very great work Belshazzar’s Feast is. Job done!

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