Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast: a guide to the best recordings

Andrew Mellor Fri 19th January 2018

This cantata is striking for its raucousness, its silence and its feeling of having a heartbeat. There are certain interpretative essentials, which Andrew Mellor seeks out in his selection of recordings

Belshazzar’s Feast, as depicted by Rembrandt (c1637)

Belshazzar’s Feast, as depicted by Rembrandt (c1637)

The first performance of Sir William Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast, at Leeds Town Hall on October 8, 1931, reportedly set the Leeds Triennial Musical Festival ablaze. However well you know the piece, it’s not difficult to sense why that might have been. But if Belshazzar can appear wicked, raucous, barbaric and outlandishly exuberant to us now, what must it have sounded like to polite singers and audiences in Leeds schooled in the smooth oratorios of the Victorian era?

One irrefutable answer to that question is ‘louder’ – if you can imagine such a thing. Walton spent some time before the London premiere (seven weeks after the performance in Leeds) reducing the score’s percussion parts. You can be forgiven for wondering just how much more hitting, scraping, thwacking and smashing this particular masterpiece could take beyond what is notated in the ‘reduced’ version we know today.

But it wasn’t just volume that the good folk of Leeds had to contend with. Walton’s angular choral writing was spectacularly difficult for the amateurs of the time, with frequent syncopation, endless shifts in metre and tricky dissonant harmonies. Then there was the text itself. Lady Walton reported that the female members of the chorus were outraged at being asked to sing the word ‘concubines’.

That political context may well have contributed to some sense of a succès de scandale. But this work’s huge sonic and dramatic punches were not conceived purely for effect and were certainly not overly experimental. Walton’s voice as an artist was coming into its own, and who should notice such a flowering but a composer of sacred music whose style stood in notable contrast. Not long after he’d heard Belshazzar, Herbert Howells noted that two things were clear from Walton’s Viola Concerto: ‘One was that, in his expression of it, beauty was shot through with pathos. The other, that brilliance in him was glittering, clean, hard, rapier-like. The pathos was not far removed from agony; the brilliance foreshadowed powers that might be devastating.’ Belshazzar, continued Howells, only confirmed Walton’s powers.

Walton’s spirituality might feel very different from that of Howells. But it says a lot about Howells that from his aesthetic position high up on a heavenly organ bench he was nevertheless thrilled by Walton’s loud but otherwise down-to-earth piece: a cacophonous mash-up of the Lancastrian brass-band tradition, the fast pace of the parlour song, the theatrical ritual of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford, and the sheer vulgarity of English martial music of the time. Howells, most impressed of all by Walton’s use of silence in his score, recognised that Belshazzar’s Feast breathes in just the same way that much big-boned Bach does.

 

The score

What was commissioned by the BBC in 1929 as a short piece for modest instrumental and vocal forces and two soloists somehow metamorphosed into a monster. Belshazzar’s Feast in its final form calls for large orchestra with four percussionists and added alto saxophone, piano, organ and harps with two separate seven-piece brass bands positioned antiphonally. Add to that a huge double chorus and a baritone soloist.

The story of the downfall of Babylon was distilled from biblical sources into a pointed libretto by Walton’s friend and housemate Osbert Sitwell. The composer took Sitwell’s fast-paced lead, using a baritone soloist to act as both protagonist and narrator, taking care of detail with two recitatives (the most dramatic moment, when a hand appears and writes on the wall, is entrusted to one of them). The score falls roughly into three sections: the first gives voice to the lamenting Israelites who predict the downfall of Babylon; the second depicts the feast itself; the third is a joyous hymn of praise following Belshazzar’s death.

The triumph of Belshazzar’s Feast is surely its manipulation of rhythm – not only in the wicked syncopations that characterise the feast and the worship of false gods but also in the teetering ritardandos that twist down towards the score’s barbaric, vulgar marches. John Williams’s score for Star Wars borrowed the latter effect right down to the use of anticipatory triplets. Investing these transitions with a sort of natural, human gait – so the music appears to be collapsing almost literally – is one of the interpretative essentials in any recording of Belshazzar, and you know instantly whether a conductor has pulled it off or not.

The score’s intense orchestral bustle needs care too, not only from an orchestra that should ideally sound a little reckless while actually being in complete control, but also in a sound picture that gives weight, clarity and depth while dealing with the huge register from a basement G in the organ’s pedals (often played at a nave-shaking 32-foot register) to three B flats above middle C in the piccolo. There are exceptions to the rule where conditions you might not think are ideal actually work pretty well (Winchester Cathedral for Andrew Litton; the Barbican Hall, London, for Colin Davis), but few recordings are entirely without blemishes that include curdling full-ensemble sound, missed detail or basic lack of presence.

A far bigger variable than orchestral characteristics are those of the choral singers. There are recordings with multiple choirs, single choirs and amateur choral societies with professional or semi-professional stiffeners. No currently available recording offers fully professional singing; in the vast majority, it’s possible to hear the strain caused by Walton’s demands in a few corners at least. Perhaps the pay-off is the unbridled joy that amateur choirs tend to radiate in this roller-coaster score, not least in the string of triumphant alleluias that make up its final furlong.

Although Walton’s tempo markings are clear, it’s remarkable how little differentiation in speeds exists between recordings. Walton’s 1943 first recording is between 33 and 34 minutes long, and the majority of recordings fall around the same mark (Walton was apparently frustrated with the tempos adopted by Sir Malcolm Sargent at the Leeds premiere, which the Yorkshire Post described as lasting 38 minutes).

A possible reason for that consistency was referred to earlier. Belshazzar’s Feast has a heartbeat, and with it a sort of centre of tempo-gravity that most musicians will naturally lock into once it gets going, just as they might in Bach’s Passions. This is what feeds those ritardandos and cranked-up marches, in which there’s a very fine interpretative line between a performance sounding slightly awkward or just right. But it’s also connected, surely, to Walton’s interest in jazz – music that lives or dies on the naturalness of its pulse. In the 1920s Walton had been writing foxtrots for the Savoy Orpheus Band, and in 1924 he started work on a concerto for two pianos, jazz band and orchestra which was eventually abandoned. Perhaps in the swing of Belshazzar – with its clattering percussion, strident piano, slippery trombones, wah-wah trumpets and grooving saxophone – we get a taste of that piece which never was.

 

Walton and his time

The gramophone was moving beyond its status as an expensive toy just as William Walton was coming to maturity. The composer was fêted by both Decca and EMI throughout the 1930s, eventually settling with the latter company, with which he made his first recording of Belzhazzar in 1943. That slightly dry and sonically shaky recording featuring the baritone Dennis Noble was followed up by the rather more secure, stereo version from 1959.

The 1959 version is as much of a ‘this is how it should go’ as can be expected, notwithstanding some dull singing from the baritone soloist Donald Bell, a slight lack of rhythmic agility and the limitations of the recording technology. Walton demonstrates how to keep a blue flame under passages of building momentum by suggesting an increase in speed but not actually instigating one at fig 8 when the baritone’s lamentations are echoed by those of the chorus over a stalking bass-line (David Willcocks, Andrew Davis and Simon Rattle manage the same effect).

Walton’s performance can sound breathless; was the composer consciously pushing the Philharmonia Orchestra and its chorus to the edge of their abilities? Perhaps – and it’s a valid approach. As it is, neither orchestra nor chorus (trained by Wilhelm Pitz) delivers sufficient bite or power for Walton, and the early recording technology can’t help but reduce them to a mush when things get complicated. The chief deal-breaker in Walton’s recording, however, is probably the shrill, brittle sound of the chorus (particularly its women’s voices) that was evidently a feature of the age. Six years earlier, Sir Adrian Boult’s 1953 mono recording with the London Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra shows the same pinched choral characteristics. But here, the choir (under the direction of chorus master Frederick Jackson) also seems determined to smooth over Walton’s pointed outbursts and angles (there is some recompense of sorts in the huge prominence given to the spiky orchestral piano). The soloist Noble is just as stentorian as he was for Walton a decade previously.

 

The Americans

You know you’re listening to a non-European recording from Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra with Rutgers University Choir (choir director F Austin Walter) in 1961, firstly from the pronunciation of ‘Isaiah’ in the opening line (‘Eye-say-yah’) but also from baritone Walter Cassel’s American twang. Ormandy tells you a thing or two about the naturalness that Walton and others find in the music’s pacing because he doesn’t get anywhere near it. He goes for high drama, but the moments that matter – even in the explosive ‘da-da-da-daaa’ that is the score’s final gesture – feel at best calculated and at worst awkward. The choral singing here is probably the poorest on record despite the choir’s youth, and the recording fails to capture the spicy harmonies that do justice to those scintillating rhythms.

Fast forward 28 years to 1989, and Robert Shaw has far better-drilled singers in the Atlanta Symphony Chorus, which can seem, at times, to whip its tiring Atlanta Symphony Orchestra colleagues into action. Shaw’s is a big, thrilling sound, but detail is too often lost and the weight can lead to exhaustion. William Stone is an evocative singer, particularly when recounting Babylon’s wares in the recitative ‘Babylon was a great city’ (Walton referred to it as the ‘shopping list’), but he doesn’t handle Walton’s difficult intervals well.

 

Big names in London

That Belshazzar’s Feast is a challenge to conduct is confirmed by André Previn’s filmed performance for Walton’s 80th birthday, which was televised live from the Royal Festival Hall, London, in 1982. The concentration (or concern?) on Previn’s face and the sweat on his brow are telling. It’s brilliant to see the percussionists at work in detail and the vehemence on the faces of Andrew Greenwood’s Philharmonia Chorus. There is interesting footage of the elderly Walton too (he mouths ‘marvellous’ from the ceremonial box at the end of the performance). But despite Thomas Allen’s huge vocal and physical presence, this is an audio-visual capturing of an event rather than a recording of the piece to live with.

Previn had made an audio recording a decade earlier for EMI, that time with the LSO and its chorus, which sounds notably more shrill than the later Philharmonia Chorus. The interesting feature of this recording ‘in the presence of the composer’ is that it’s the slowest there is: the march at fig 27 and the flourishing Allegro giocoso at bar 662 both drag. More problematic is a general lack of definition to the choral sound that makes consonants indecipherable and words generally inaudible. John Shirley-Quirk lacks the command that other soloists bring, and his vowels are indistinct.

In between Previn’s two recordings came Sir Georg Solti’s from Kingsway Hall, London, with the London Philharmonic Choir (drilled by John Alldis) and Orchestra. The performance is big-boned and dramatic, as you’d expect, but not too variegated. With Solti, Walton’s little hair-raisers are thrust out: Benjamin Luxon tears into his first entry, and you can’t miss the piccolo’s three-note salvos with muted trumpets underneath at ‘How shall we sing the Lord’s song’ (did those piccolos catch the ear of George Martin before he orchestrated Paul McCartney’s ‘Live and Let Die’?).

But there are more subtle signs of Solti’s theatrical instinct too: a few pages later at fig 7, when the maestro shows, with his horn section, how a single note can resound with such dramatic shape; and the sul ponticello strings at fig 16, which are almost always glossed over. Solti comes short, however, in those ritardandos before figs 27 and 38, where the natural segueing of speeds that can really set off those marches eludes him.

 

Back to British

In that same year, 1977, Chandos made its first recording of Belshazzar’s Feast with Sir Alexander Gibson. The sound picture is pretty uneven, with microphones apparently dropped onto some vital instruments but not others. But the general feel here is one of too many passages lacking impact, particularly at pointed choral moments such as ‘Thou, O King, art King of Kings’ (fig 49).

Chandos’s next recording, in 1989, came from the trusty Philharmonia with baritone Gwynne Howell and the Bach Choir under Sir David Willcocks, recorded at All Saints Church Tooting, in London. This is very much an account in which singing leads over playing. Howell makes the most of the ‘shopping list’ and the choir has been shaped with care even if it doesn’t sing to the standards we’d expect today. When it comes to the crunch perhaps it’s the crunch that’s missing – the performance can feel low-octane, and the piece’s structure unclear.

Belshazzar appeared to enjoy a recording heyday in the 1990s. The surprise package is from the middle of the decade: Andrew Litton’s 1995 performance with his Bournemouth Symphony Chorus and Orchestra, who have for company the Waynflete Singers and L’Inviti (as the semi-chorus) drilled by David Hill. The miracle is that the resonant sound, in Winchester Cathedral, actually works: everything is audible partly because Litton’s traffic management is excellent and partly because the engineering is so astute. Use of a professional semi-chorus pays dividends in ‘The trumpeters and pipers are silent’, as so often this passage is scratchy and thin rather than the ethereal gear-change it should be. I hesitate to recommend a recording with the odd strange tempo and in which some of the more fascinating corners of the score can sound as if in the shadows. But Litton’s is a recording with an awesome noise and the stamp of an interpretation that works.

Litton’s soloist Bryn Terfel is just as evocative in a live performance from the 1994 Proms, singing Walton’s ‘shopping list’ with teasing, alluring conviction. The best features of this performance under Sir Andrew Davis are biggies indeed: choral singing that is consistently disciplined, evocative and ‘light’ when it needs to be (Stephen Jackson’s BBC Symphony Chorus sounds fresh and the presence of the BBC Singers makes all the difference); a higher level of articulation overall (note the sforzandos in bars 741-43, ‘For Babylon the Great is fallen’) than heard elsewhere; general agility and panache from the orchestra at high speeds (possibly the highest on record); a real, room-shaking organ sound; and the palpable atmosphere of the Last Night of the Proms. Let’s not forget that the latter brings with it the sound of 6000 souls standing and breathing during Walton’s pregnant rests and general pauses.

Not even Sir Simon Rattle has quite the hold on the push-pull tempo shifts into Walton’s marches that Andrew Davis does. His performance comes with studio cleanliness and impressive anticipation and atmosphere, even if it’s not off the leash like Davis’s (even though Rattle’s 1997 CBSO sounds constantly on the brink of letting rip). The recording’s key attributes are clarity and structure, which both feed into one another: the overlapping choral paragraphs of the final pages are entirely mush-free. The rhythmic impetus is alive and wriggling under Rattle too, and his baritone Thomas Hampson is clean and warm, perhaps without the final lining of drama that Terfel provides. The joint City of Birmingham Symphony and Cleveland Orchestra choruses trained by Simon Halsey and Gareth Morrell sound relatively bright and agile.

But at least Hampson is more involving than Christopher Purves, who sounds uncharacteristically wooden in his (early career) performance with Paul Daniel, the English Northern Philharmonia, the Leeds Philharmonic Chorus, the Huddersfield Choral Society and chamber choir Laudibus. Like Rattle’s, this recording from 2001 that returned Belshazzar to its Leeds Town Hall birthplace broods even at quiet volumes. Daniel offers some evocative shifts in light, and knows when to change gear sideways rather than up or down (as at the Allegro molto at fig 40). The acoustic puts some space around the sound, but the forces have impact nonetheless. Perhaps what’s missing is a last dose of flair and technical panache from singers and players.

The most recent recording is, like Litton’s, an acoustic surprise. The Barbican’s cramped stage and LSO Live’s characteristically boxy production style conspire to create a compellingly high-pressure live recording from Sir Colin Davis and the London Symphony Chorus and Orchestra. Peter Coleman-Wright is a perfect baritone soloist who takes superlative care with the notes but sounds unfailingly evocative too. Davis captures the heartbeat of the piece as well as Andrew Davis and Rattle (his lurch into the march at fig 27 is perfectly timed), but it’s the grain of this LSO Live recording that is most attractive: we get variegated textures even at high volumes when the orchestra is tripping over itself like the band crammed into the feasting parlour. If there’s any fault, Joseph Cullen’s singers can’t quite match the choral forces gathered for Rattle and Andrew Davis; and if there was a digital organ on the Barbican stage for the performances in September 2008, it’s barely audible.

Something else you don’t get from the Barbican is ‘atmospheric’ silence, which has a funny way of robbing performances of this piece of that final ounce of tension. Perhaps that’s why it’s a recording with some imperfections and audience noise, from Andrew Davis, that emerges as the most recommendable in the end. Nowhere are Walton’s silences more staggering than in the work’s final pages, where there are four Handel-style gaps in the music in the last 15 bars alone. ‘You can hear your heart beat in any of them,’ wrote Herbert Howells. ‘And that is not the least of Walton’s triumphs.’

 

Top Choice

Terfel bar BBC Singers; BBC Symphony Chorus and Orchestra / A Davis 

Apex

Perhaps the single most important characteristic of any performance of Belshazzar’s Feast is a feeling of wicked excitement and intense joy, which this recording delivers best. 

 

Live choice

Coleman-Wright bar London Symphony Chorus and Orchestra / C Davis 

LSO Live

The sound isn’t exactly ‘freed’ in the boxy acoustic of the Barbican, but it is lent a visceral edge as if in the feasting room itself, and there’s not a lot wrong with Davis’s pacing.

 

Studio choice

Hampson bar Cleveland Orchestra Chorus; City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus and Orchestra / Rattle 

EMI/Warner

A good alternative to the ‘top’ choice, Rattle’s studio account is clean, accurate, well played, attractively sung and boasts plenty of depth and impact. 

 

Church choice

Terfel bar Waynflete Singers; L’Inviti; Bournemouth Symphony Chorus and Orchestra / Litton 

Decca

A washy acoustic can kill Belshazzar stone dead but this recording from Winchester Cathedral poses a fascinating but unusual sound picture that actually works. 

 

Selected recordings

Date / Artists / Record company

1943 Noble; Huddersfield Ch, Liverpool PO / Walton / Heritage mono

1953 Noble; London Philharmonic Ch & Orch / Boult / Somm mono 

1959 Bell; Philh Chor & Orch / Walton / EMI/Warner Classics 

1961 Cassel; Rutgers Univ Ch, Philadelphia Orch / Ormandy / Sony Classical 

1972 Shirley-Quirk; London Sym Chor & Orch / Previn / EMI/Warner Classics

1977 Milnes; Scottish Nat Chor & Orch / Gibson / Chandos

1977 Luxon; London Philharmonic Ch & Orch / Solti / Decca Eloquence

1982 Allen; Philh Chor & Orch / Previn / ArtHaus Musik

1989 Stone; Atlanta Sym Chor & Orch / Shaw / Telarc

1989 Howell; Bach Ch, Philharmonia Orch / Willcocks / Chandos

1994 Terfel; BBC Sym Chor & Orch / A Davis / Apex

1995 Terfel; Bournemouth Sym Chor & Orch / Litton / Decca

1997 Hampson; City of Birmingham Sym Chor & Orch / Rattle / EMI/Warner Classics

2001 Purves; Leeds Philharmonic Chor, English Northern Philh / Daniel / Naxos

2008 Coleman-Wright; London Sym Chor & Orch / C Davis / LSO Live

 

This article originally appeared in the June 2017 issue of Gramophone. To enjoy features like this every month, subscribe to Gramophone: gramophone.co.uk/subscribe

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