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William WALTON (1902-1983)
Belshazzar's Feast (1931) [34.13]
Crown Imperial (1937) [6.45]
Orb and Sceptre (1953) [7.20]
Christopher Purves (bar)
Simon Lindley (organ)
Huddersfield Choral Society; Leeds Philharmonic Chorus; Laudibus
English Northern Philharmonia/Paul Daniel
rec. Town Hall, Leeds, 30 June - 1 July 2001, 7 July, 25 Oct 1996.
NAXOS 8.555869 [48.17]

This performance of Belshazzar’s Feast neatly brings together two strands of the work’s performing history. The recording was made in the self-same hall that witnessed the première of the oratorio at the Leeds Festival of 1931. What, I wonder, must have been the impact on that first audience of this shatteringly original masterpiece? Secondly, the recording involves the members of the Huddersfield Choral Society, whose predecessors took part in the very first recording of the work, in 1943, under the composer’s direction; a superb achievement, especially under wartime conditions and, arguably, still the best of Walton’s own recordings of the work.

I have heard and greatly enjoyed several of Paul Daniel’s previous Walton discs for Naxos and so I expected much from this release but feel that it doesn’t quite attain its promise.

The choral singing is good. It’s disciplined and lively. I assume that around 200 singers must have been involved but the combined choirs don’t really make sufficient impact - nothing like that of the combined Birmingham and Cleveland choirs on Simon Rattle’s EMI version, for instance. This, I fear, is the fault of the recording for the chorus sounds to be set back too far in the aural picture. To my ears the recording favours the orchestra unduly, especially at the bass end. It has to be said that the orchestration is superb but we want to hear the choir just as much. This imbalance is especially marked at climactic passages. Thus, for instance, the chorus is rather swamped at “above my chief joy” (track 2, 1’21”). The same thing happens at the peak of the great chorus of praise (track 4, 3’36” onwards) and again in the paean of “alleluias” with which the work jubilantly concludes (track 9, 0’48” onwards). Even though many passages come off better than this it’s still a crucial failing, in my view. It must be a phenomenally difficult work to balance well but other engineers have managed it with more success.

I should say that the orchestral playing is excellent and the chorus work is comparable. In the quieter passages, such as “By the waters of Babylon” the chorus comes across really well and we can hear that it is well balanced internally and that it sings well.

Baritone Christopher Purves sings “If I forget thee” with feeling and firm tone and much of his performance is first class. However, I found his delivery of the famous “shopping list”, “Babylon was a great city” (track 3), a disappointment. He declaims it powerfully enough but. sings it too straight, with insufficient variety in the delivery. Other soloists have used cunning changes of pace to good effect and have employed more overt expression. John Shirley-Quirk (for Previn, EMI) is excellent here as is David Wilson-Johnson (for Hickox, also EMI) and Denis Noble (on the 1943 Walton version) simply unsurpassed. However, it must be said that Purves’ diction and tone are consistently good and his performance gives much pleasure. He does the ‘Writing on the Wall’ atmospherically (followed by a simply terrific shout of “slain” from the chorus at track 6, 1’44”).

The feast itself (tracks 3-5) makes a fine impact, with vital, rhythmically alert direction from Paul Daniel. Indeed, his interpretation is generally flawless and in the finest traditions of the work. The only thing with which I’d take issue is that the final “alleluias” (track 9 from 1’02”) are surely pressed a bit too hectically.

Towards the end there is something of a coup. The excellent youth chamber choir, Laudibus, is used to sing the brief semi-chorus, “The trumpeters are silent” (track 8). I’m sure this must have been done on disc and in performance before but I’ve not come across an example. The use of a small choir whose members are used to singing together as an ensemble makes a surprising difference and points up the contrast with the main choir more than usual. Laudibus sing excellently, by the way.

To sum up, there is much to enjoy in this performance but it’s not the out-and-out winner I had hoped. I’m not sure if Richard Hickox’s EMI version is still available. If it is then either that or Previn’s first recording (also EMI) will give a more rounded aural picture of the score. Both these performances are excellent and cost not much more than this Naxos version. If money is no object the full price Rattle recording (EMI) is superb and is coupled with a fine reading of the First symphony. If you can still find a copy Walton’s own 1943 recording (EMI) it is pretty indispensable, despite inevitable sonic limitations.

The two splendid coronation marches are included as fillers. Good though these are I can’t help wishing that the magnificent Te Deum had been included instead (or, indeed, as well since the disc is not over-generously filled.) Crown Imperial is a magnificent creation, as is the even more ornate and flamboyant Orb and Sceptre (my personal favourite.) What opulent panoplies of splendour both marches are and what splendid Big Tunes both possess! It may be heresy to say so but I think they outshine the Pomp and Circumstance collection. For my taste Paul Daniel just broadens the Big Tune of Crown Imperial a touch too much at its repeat the first time round (track 10, 2’30”), leaving less in the tank for the apotheosis of the tune later on. When that apotheosis arrives – a magnificent pageant – the organ of Leeds Town Hall contributes tellingly as it does elsewhere on the disc. The opulence of Orb and Sceptre is fully realised by Daniel and his players. In 1953 this march really must have captured and reflected the mood of national optimism at the possible dawning of a new Elizabethan Age after the austerities of wartime Britain.

So this is a very good disc but issues of recorded balance prevent me from giving it the outright recommendation I’d hoped. However, this may worry other listeners less in which case there is much to enjoy. If you can, sample before you buy.

John Quinn

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