FESTIVAL REVIEW: Belshazzar’s Feast

Celebrating their fiftieth anniversary, and joined by the orchestra who helped set them on their path to sustained national acclaim in 1968, the Brighton Festival Chorus and the Royal Philharmonic prove themselves to be a world-class pairing delivering a spectacular, rousing finale to this year’s festival.

With an involving programme, orchestra and chorus draw us into musical landscapes that are rich beyond the words of this short review. For this listener the finest was the first selection, Britten’s Interludes from his 1945 opera Peter Grimes. Clearly intended to equate the natural, sensory world with inner territories increasingly dominated by distress and uproar, the dexterous use of the orchestra sections is masterful, and the subsequent pieces cannot surpass it. Whether high, sinuous violins, dissonant, angular brass or thumping, swelling cellos and basses, the range and complexity of emotion transmitted by Britten’s restless modernity feels as urgent and vivid as it did in the year Britain staggered out from the nightmare of war, blinking into the light of a world turned upside down.

A popular favourite, The Lark Ascending works as a contrasting balm to the Interludes. Lead violin Duncan Riddell offered up a bravura performance as the lark, proclaiming its song in true, precise tones infused with emotion.

Belshazzar’s Feast was impressive and entertaining, but compared to Britten (here and War Requiem earlier in the festival) it fell short in terms of expressive range and texture. As a non-Christian, I found the Old Testament intolerance of the ‘foreign’ distasteful: ‘O daughter of Babylon . . . Happy shall he be that taketh thy children / And dasheth them against a stone.’ This is violent propaganda disguised as faith. The interplay of chorus, soloist and orchestra was accomplished but less nuanced, less entwined with the work’s meaning than in Britten’s orchestrations.

Sunday 27th May, 7.30pm

Brighton Dome Concert Hall

Review by Simon Murnau

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