CBSO Belshazzar's Feast review


CBSO/John Wilson at Symphony Hall *****
If I were still in a position to select a Highlight of the Year, even with eight months to go this CBSO performance under John Wilson of Walton's Belshazzar's Feast would win the accolade hands down. A sea of microphones thankfully captured the event for relay on BBC Radio3 on April 15.
My colleague David Hart has already reviewed the Copland Appalachian Spring and soloist James Ehnes' brilliant reading of the Barber Violin Concerto preceding it, so here I concentrate upon the Walton.
Ever since its creation I have been a huge admirer of the CBSO Chorus, but here, augmented by the University of Birmingham Singers, a total vocal complement around 300-strong really excelled itself, projecting directly to every member of a packed audience and articulating with diction so clear as if they were addressing each one of us; what wonderful choral preparation from Julian Wilkins.
Bozidar Smiljanic, a name new to me, and with the bearing of an Old Testament prophet, simply owned Walton's bass-baritone solos, stentorian, grieving (sometimes singing from memory), and fearless in the unaccompanied exposure Walton demands of him.
And this was a perfect work to vaunt many of Symphony Hall's qualities, acoustic doors open wide, galleries right and left accommodating the extra brass bands to totally convincing stereophonic effect (some halls are embarrassingly inadequate in squeezing them in), and the whole effect engulfing all of us.
Under John Wilson's clear, decisive baton the CBSO played like people possessed. Everything was judiciously balanced (the rehearsals must have been fascinating to observe), instrumental solos were telling (not least Mark O'Brien's saxophone), and the percussion section excelled in the many jazzy or spooky episodes.
In all of this Wilson's elegant but so persuasive conducting reminded me of a great hero of mine from my teenage years, and one who was a great conductor of this fabulous mini-oratorio: Sir Malcolm Sargent.
Grumpy footnote: thanks to the hideously expanding roadworks, and the necessity for police vans and ambulances to minister to millennials who cannot take their drink, there is no room for a taxi-rank anywhere near Symphony Hall or the Repertory Theatre. The cultural heart of the city is dying.
Christopher Morley

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