Prom 23: Tallis Fantasia … These Things Shall Be … Belshazzar’s Feast

Vaughan Williams
Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis
These Things Shall Be
A Village Romeo and Juliet – The Walk to the Paradise Garden
Belshazzar’s Feast

Jonathan Lemalu (bass-baritone)

BBC Symphony Chorus
BBC National Chorus of Wales

London Brass

BBC National Orchestra of Wales
Tadaaki Otaka

Reviewed by: Chris Caspell

Reviewed: 31 July, 2012
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Tadaaki OtakaThe tranquillity of the Royal Albert Hall was a welcome respite from Olympics frenzy. Choral music and two orchestral works proved inspired programming. The Hall’s Gallery and boxes were put to good use – for the antiphonal extra brass in Belshazzar’s Feast and even more effectively in the opening work. Ralph Vaughan Williams composed his Tallis Fantasia for the Three Choirs Festival where it received its first performance, in Gloucester Cathedral, in September 1910. Written after a period of study with Ravel, the Fantasia is a challenging work to bring off with three groups of spatially arranged strings: a full section, a smaller one and a string quartet. Vaughan Williams’s vision was to resemble the sound of an organ in an ecclesiastical setting. Here the chamber ensemble was placed high in the Gallery; the contrast was exhilarating. It was a shame that the string quartet was not also separated – it being played by the section leaders of the full ensemble. The BBCNOW strings embraced the rich harmonies, playing with strength and delicacy in equal measure. Göran Fröst’s viola solo took Vaughan Williams’s poco più animato instruction literally, ignoring to some extent the rubato marking and made the episode sound rushed. Not so in the closing bars; leader Lesley Hatfield’s vibrato-less upward arpeggio was exquisite.

Jonathan Lemalu. Photograph: EMI Classics/Richard DunkleyThese Things Shall Be was commissioned by the BBC for a concert to celebrate the coronation of King George VI in 1937. John Ireland’s setting of John Addington Symond’s humanistic poem A Vista is certainly a piece of its time – its Panglossian ideal of “A loftier race / Than e’er the world hath known” now seems trite and bombastic. Ireland counted the piece among his major works, a favourite work at the Proms until 1957. While the Utopian words no longer hit the sweet spot with a modern-day realistic (cynical) society, Ireland’s comparably conservative music is attractive and rich. The combined choruses’ excellent clarity and precision made up for any shortcomings of the text. The orchestral balance was superb. Sadly Jonathan Lemalu had a problem – his voice warbled with an unpleasant (and uncharacteristic) vibrato that also took notes off-pitch. Hopefully this is a short-term affliction. The combination of chorus and orchestra at the end in “When all the earth is paradise” was sublime, rescuing the piece’s less than satisfactory middle.

After the interval, things seemed to fall apart. Delius’s gentle idyll that lies between the final two scenes of his opera A Village Romeo and Juliet calls for an accuracy that eluded orchestra and conductor; the opening was a muddle. The excellent balance in the Ireland was lost. The audience, noisy in the first half, was suitably sympathetic though, allowing the music to die away until Tadaaki Otaka lowered his baton.

William Walton’s relationship with the Sitwells is well documented; he was invited to lodge in the attic of their London home with the composer later recalling, “I went for a few weeks and stayed about fifteen years”. Walton’s first successful collaboration was Façade with Edith Sitwell in 1923; in 1931 it was the turn of her brother, Osbert, who brought together texts from several books of the Old Testament for Walton to set to music. The original commission from the BBC asked for a piece for small chorus and an ensemble of no more than fifteen players with vocal soloist. Walton realised that he needed larger forces, so Thomas Beecham came to the rescue by including the work in the Leeds Festival of 1931.

The forces required are huge; double mixed chorus and double semi-chorus, triple woodwind, standard brass, percussion, two harps, piano (optional), organ and strings. Walton took up Beecham’s suggestion to “throw in a couple of brass bands” as it wasn’t expected that the cantata would be heard again. Under Malcolm Sargent the work was an immediate success and has remained one of the composer’s most popular pieces. A tired opening from the trombones was contrasted with vibrant declamations from the tenors and basses of the choruses. “Thus spake Isaiah”: with these three words you could tell that it wasn’t going to end well for the King of Babylon – the choruses clearly had him “slain!”. The antiphonal brass bands – of the London variety – were placed in the boxes on either side of the stage to good effect even if their contribution in the epic “Praise ye” march did not have very much fizz. Lemalu continued to be in difficulties, and it wasn’t until the final chorus – “Then sing aloud to God our strength” – that the orchestra really came alive. The combined forces rose with one voice (and a very keen organist) in celebration of the fall of Babylon to bring Walton’s colourful masterpiece to a rip-roaring conclusion.

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