CentralMusicReviewYouth Theatre

Belshazzar’s Feast – Symphony Hall, Birmingham

Conductor: Michael Seal

Reviewer:  David Robinson

The City of Birmingham Choir under the direction of Adrian Lucas joins forces with the dynamic Birmingham Schools’ Symphony Orchestra for an evening of robust and admirable English music. The main course after the interval is William Walton’s sublime Belshazzar’s Feast, based on selected biblical texts from the books of Psalms and Daniel. Prior to that, we are treated to some tasteful starters courtesy of some English Dances set to music by twentieth century composer Malcolm Arnold, a consummate tunesmith of light orchestral music. The lesser known composer Gerald Finzi, born at the dawn of the twentieth century, gives the choir a challenging and more subdued choral experience, Lo, the full, final Sacrifice ably accompanied by guest organist Paul Carr. It is very much a eulogy, a tribute to the Anglican Eucharist, based on some words from the metaphysical poet Richard Crashaw. Finzi’s desire and joy in writing for the voice is apparent and clearly evident and the choir’s delivery of the eight-part closing Amen is a delight.

The School’s Symphony Orchestra tackle Arnold’s English Dances with a distinct flair; despite the title, there is a marked Slavonic and folk feel to the movements. Conductor Michael Seal champions brilliantly the percussion and brass sections in the Vivace and Allegro dances. The more restrained Grazioso movement is delicately delivered with a spotlight on the gifted bassoonist and flautist. Overall Arnold’s jazz and folk influence result in a melodious and tuneful twirl round the gifted orchestra.

The middle of the sandwich and perhaps the most difficult item on the menu is the venturesome attempt by the choir on Lo, the full, Final Sacrifice. The conservative tone does modulate frequently, which at times becomes less noticeable chorally, but the clarity is uncomplicated and delivered serenely. In among this muscular and no-nonsense programme it is a pleasant offering.

The brass section is boosted in the second half by members of the Birmingham Conservatoire for Walton’s grand cantata Belshazzar’s Feast. Also on stage is Australian baritone Morgan Pearse, narrating the recitative with considerable authority and confidence. The ingredients in the piece are plentiful and joyful and hit you from all angles of the vast stage, and indeed from the gallery which houses the extra brass. Again the percussion and brass sections are bubbling to the top, as conductor Michael Seal urges the musicians on for more energy and exuberance: he nearly succeeds in his quest for more and in the end the choir and the orchestra produce a wonderful celebration. It is no wonder it is Walton’s most celebrated achievement and a firm favourite in the choral repertoire. The sound from the large choir encapsulates beautifully the blend of freedom and joy and together with the young musicians bring the feast to a wonderful finale. A feeling of being replete and satisfied with all the courses, and maybe even room for a bit more.

Reviewed on 21 May 2017 | Image: Contributed

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The Central team is under the editorship of Selwyn Knight. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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