Opening Night: Spanish Fiesta & Pagan Feast

Fandangos [UK premiere]
Symphonie espagnole
Belshazzar’s Feast

Maxim Vengerov (violin)
Willard W White (bass-baritone)
Choral Arts Society of Washington &BBC Symphony Chorus
BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Leonard Slatkin

Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: 19 July, 2002
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

This electrifying performance of Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast certainly ensured that the composer’s centenary was marked – and the 108th Proms season launched – in considerable style.

If the first half of the concert was somehow less satisfying, this was due to the programming rather then the performance.With the forces available for Belshazzar, one might have thought that, being the Golden Jubilee Year, Walton’s magnificent Coronation Te Deum might have started the proceedings. Instead, the focus was on the Spanish theme that has been chosen to run through the season.

Chabrier’s effervescent evocation was given a performance of great sparkle and verve, with exemplary playing all-round. Especially noteworthy was the delicacy of the quieter passages – woodwind and harps near the beginning were delectable – whilst the full orchestra played out with panache and exemplary rhythmic precision.

Roberto Sierra’s Fandangos was another treat. Here was a contemporary composition that is surely destined to become a popular orchestral display piece. Based on a keyboard Fandango by Antonio Soler (1729-1783) and also including elements of one by Boccherini (1743-1805), the composer describes the work as “a fantasy, or a super-fandango”. And so it proved. A strongrhythmic drive throughout propelled the music onward. One of thememorable features is the way in which Soler’s Fandango seems to disappear, swallowed up in a welter of brass and exotic percussion, only to re-emerge unscathed. The strings have some florid passages with contours and textures that sometimes suggest Philip Glass, and the orchestration is vividly and individually coloured. A thoroughly enjoyable work that was played and conducted with infectious enthusiasm.

Maxim Vengerov then joined the orchestra for Lalo’s concertante showpiece. Whatever the composer may have intended (“a solo violin soaring over the rigid form of an old symphony”) it is in the virtuosic violin writing where most of the piece’s interest lies; Vengerov gave a thoroughly convincing and stylistic performance. Again, quiet passages were most effective, with mere whispers of sound from both soloist and orchestra making their mark. Indeed Slatkin and Vengerov made a very effective case for this piece which, in spite of its ’local’ colourings is not entirely without its longeurs. Vengerov received a rapturous reception and then played an encore – the ’Sarabande’ from Bach’s B minor Partita, poignantly dedicating it to the children across the world suffering from the trauma of war and religious persecution.

After the interval, Walton’s blazing masterpiece was given a tremendous performance. The combined choral forces were excellent, with superb intonation and firm attack, whilst the orchestral playing was flawless. Walton’s vivid and, in some places, still startling orchestration was brought graphically to life. Someone sitting behind me laughing at Walton’s novel percussion and brass writing spoiled my enjoyment. Amazing how selfish and thoughtless some concertgoers can be.

Willard White was an imposing and authoritative soloist, but it wasSlatkin’s interpretation that made one marvel anew at the sheer originality of the score. This performance made one realise just how astonishing the music must have seemed in 1931, and one can hardly pay a higher compliment than that. I had forgotten how utterly desolate and sad is the setting of ’By the waters of Babylon’, whilst the barbaric splendour praising the pagan gods can seldom have been more vividly conveyed. In the final pages, Slatkin took his time over the concluding, spaced-out chords, reminding us that Walton’s First Symphony was just around the corner.

I hope Slatkin will re-record Belshazzar’s Feast. His interpretation certainly needs to be preserved. BBC Radio 3 re-broadcasts this Prom on Monday, 22 July, at 2 o’clock in the afternoon.

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