thu 21/11/2019

Prom 44: Finley, LSO & Chorus, Orfeó Català, Rattle review - lurid inter-war triptych | reviews, news & interviews

Prom 44: Finley, LSO & Chorus, Orfeó Català, Rattle review - lurid inter-war triptych

Prom 44: Finley, LSO & Chorus, Orfeó Català, Rattle review - lurid inter-war triptych

Less could sometimes have been more in blockbusters by Varèse and Walton

Monkey business with the monstrous: Simon Rattle conducting the LSOAll images BBC/Chris Christodoulou

So the Proms ignored the Berlioz anniversary challenge to perform his Requiem and serve up four brass bands at the points of the Albert Hall compass. Yet at least last night in works of the 1920s and 1930s we got one offstage in the crazed baggy-monster original version of Varèse's Amériques and two in blazing antiphons on the platform, fanfaring both luxury and the celebrants of its overthrow in Walton's Belshazzar's Feast. With Simon Rattle in command of vast forces, it was mostly loud and brilliant, but it could have been even more focused in its ferocity.

With two London orchestras showing off in coruscating repertoire three days apart at the Proms – the London Philharmonic under Jurowski on Saturday, the London Symphony Orchestra now in Rattle’s charge last night – some comparisons were inevitable. Jurowski, highlighting Russian spectaculars from the previous two decades, kept it all sharp and shining throughout. Rattle, admittedly handling much more elaborate and modernistic material, with Stravinsky as the missing link between the two concerts, didn’t always seem in total command of rhythm and propulsive movement. Prom 44 ensembleAdmittedly Amériques Mark One seems to lumber from one thrash to another; Charles Koechlin’s Les bandar-log, his anthropomorphic 1939 scherzo taking Kipling’s monkey troupe in The Jungle Book as its subject, put younger Frenchman Varèse to shame for having something to say throughout, even if his simians ape different styles between steamy-jungle bookends (wonderfully evocative from a team which knows The Rite of Spring and its heady Part Two prelude inside out). Varèse surely goes wrong in upturning the advice of Lewis Carroll’s Duchess to “take care of the sense and the sounds will take care of themselves”; the sounds, from naughty crow call, siren and wind machines to raucous brass fanfares, are fascinating but repetitious. A more whiplash approach might have been difficult given such gargantuan forces in such a venue, but it’s possible, and it wasn’t always felt last night.

If there was any fault about this immaculately together Belshazzar’s Feast, it lay in the two-edged sword of vast vocal forces (the London Symphony Chorus, Orfeó Català senior and youth choirs from Barcelona, pictured above with Ratle and the LSO). The blazing chords of judgment brought supreme shock and awe, but when Walton wants angular, jazz-inspired drive, a choir half this size might have served the purpose better. The same ambivalence pertains to the venue: spacious for the broadest climaxes, taking away the edge of the syncopations and the roller-coaster rides around the great march. Gerald FinleyNo quibbles, though, about Gerald Finley’s operatic narration (the bass-baritone pictured above), reaching its stylistic high water-mark in the punchline about Babylon’s merchandise – “slaves, and the souls of men” – though still appropriately creepy, with perfect orchestral colouring, for the writing on the wall (the choral “slain” was spine-tingling, as it must be). The main thing is that we left in stunned admiration at the extremes to which Walton took the oratorio form. There may be deeper masterpieces in the choral/orchestral repertoire, but none more visceral.

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