This is the RSNO‘s last concert of the season and music director and conductor Thomas Søndergård gives us a little speech celebrating his first year as music director, and reminds us to come to the new season on 4 Oct. He also introduces the programme, whose main work is Walton’s Belshazaar’s Feast, but the first half has a Scandinavian theme with Sibelius’s Belshazzar Suite and then Norwegian cellist Truls Mørk playing the Elgar Cello Concerto.
Sibelius is a very Finnish composer but in 1906 he was affected by the fashion for Orientalism. Strauss’s Salome had premiered the year before, so he wrote some incidental music for a friend who had written a play about Belshazzar’s Feast. It starts off quite oriental in the first movement but the second movement Solitude is very melancholy, as is the third movement Nocturne. Although the last movement, Khadra’s Dance, shimmers a little in oriental style, overall Belshazzar’s Feast is more Finnish than oriental, but a pleasant enough work.
The Elgar Cello Concerto is one of the great works of English music and for the last fifty years performances have been dominated by the recording of Jacqueline Du Pre with her husband Daniel Barenboim. So when Truls Mørk begins the famous opening line of the concerto, memories return to that famous recording and to be frank it doesn’t compare well. The opening notes don’t seem to stand out as prominently and often the cello is lost in the other strings. At the interval, others also remark that the cello sounds underpowered – it may have been the instrument he was playing or it may have been the way he approached the work. Either way, while there is no doubt he is a fine cellist, it isn’t a memorable performance.
There is no such problem with Belshazzar’s Feast after the interval. This is loud, colourful, complex and yes, even oriental! Originally commissioned by the BBC in 1929, it took Walton two years to write. When it was premiered by Malcolm Sargent in 1931 it was a great hit but seen to be very complex. Indeed, Thomas Beecham, the famous conductor declared, “it will never be performed again!” Since then it has become a very important piece of English music but fairly rarely performed because it requires big choruses and very long rehearsal time.
Fortunately, the 130 strong RSNO Chorus, under the very skilled direction of Gregory Batsleer, obviously had sufficient rehearsal time. They sing this complex work with great power and passion, although young American baritone Anthony Clark Evans sounds a little muted at times and often disappears into the chorus. The orchestra, under the animated conducting of Søndergård, complement the chorus very well with the aid of additional brass in the top of the upper circle.
It is a good concert but not a great one, although there is a big response from the audience at the end. Factors like the muted baritone and cello take away the flow of the work.