sun 21/07/2024

BBC Symphony Orchestra, Gardner, Barbican Hall | reviews, news & interviews

BBC Symphony Orchestra, Gardner, Barbican Hall

BBC Symphony Orchestra, Gardner, Barbican Hall

A classic British oratorio framed in exotic orchestral delights

'Thou art weighed in the balance and found wanting': Belshazzar meets his colourful fate courtesy of the BBCSO and Chorus

It’s typical: you wait ages for a Belshazzar’s Feast and then two come along at once. And judging by the performance delivered by Ed Gardner and the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus last night, Andrew Nethsingha and his massed Cambridge choirs will have their work cut out to follow it next week at the Royal Festival Hall.

Throbbing with dance, gaudy as an Eastern bazaar painted by a second-rate Victorian artist, Gardner’s Belshazzar was a wash of Technicolor extravagance among the twee reds and greens of Christmas classical programming.

And speaking of gaudy – it was quite the curiosity that Gardner offered us by way of aperitif. Sibelius’s Belshazzar’s Feast Suite is, as Gardner himself rather euphemistically expressed in his mid-concert remarks, a contrasting affair to the Walton. Eschewing the monumentality of the latter, the composer opts instead for a miniature set of movements, bypassing Belshazzar’s climactic death scene in favour of orientalist musical musings.

We lost ourselves among the opulence of Gardner’s orchestral textures

The orchestral equivalent of descriptions of dark flashing eyes and heady scents of spices, these vignettes don’t see Sibelius at his nuanced best. Balancing rather affected contemplation (the second movement duet for solo viola and cello is a graceful exception) with colouristic scene-setting, this incidental music for Hjalmar Procope’s play glories unfashionably in the exotic. There was no faulting the teeth-flashing salesmanship of Gardner (pictured below) and his forces, but it was a novelty that proved just a little too disposable.

Opening with an arresting, unaccompanied recitative for male voice, William Walton’s oratorio sorts the choral men from the boys. Those of the BBC Symphony Chorus certainly achieved the emphasis, even if it was all rather scrappy to begin with – a fistfight of closing consonants that gradually calmed itself into resolution during the opening section. By the time we reached the full-ensemble howl of “Jerusalem”, however, all was well, and gamely plunging into Gardner’s determinedly brisk tempos, the chorus led us into the whirling death-dance (“Thus in Babylon”) and through into the metallic brilliance of the closing section.

Supported and enveloped by magnificent cori spezzati of brass from the balcony, we lost ourselves among the opulence of Gardner’s orchestral textures. Marshalling chamber precision from the BBCSO, his was a reading that honoured the scope of English oratorio, as alien to the tea-urn-and-soggy-biscuits image of this rather Anglican genre as one could wish. Only the endlessly expressive diction of Gerald Finley (rarely have consonants yielded so much distaste as his at the excess of the Babylonians – “Of precious stones, of pearls, of fine linens…”) betrayed the work’s unimpeachably British credentials.

In an inspired piece of programming, Finley (pictured left) joined the orchestra before the interval for a sequence of Sibelius songs that must surely have been new in performance to most of us. A Swedish translation of Shakespeare’s Come Away, Come Away, Death saw dark vowels and mossy baritonal textures leavened by the unexpected gleam of a harp – one of a sequence of orchestral cameos that showcased Gardner’s ability to read the textural nub of a score. The modal, existential miniature “On a Balcony Beside the Sea” that followed yearns beyond the confines of its form, reaching desperately out towards Wagnerian scope and chromatic release. Both here and in “The Rapids-Rider’s Bride” we perhaps missed those deepest colours that Finley’s voice doesn’t offer, but the narrative energy of this ballad tragedy – shared between the singer and some virtuosic orchestral writing – was in no question.

It seems perhaps perverse to emerge from a concert of such breadth still clinging to the curtain-raiser, but if ever there was a work that could transform this sacrificial altar of a performance slot into something more substantial it’s Benjamin Britten’s Sinfonia Da Requiem. From the tentative graspings in low strings and bassoon that open the Lachrymosa, the work’s through-composed three movements gain bitter and continuous momentum, only redeemed at the last second by the promise of peace offered in the Andante molto tranquillo. The saxophone – the spectral outsider at the orchestral feast – gets arguably its finest mainstream outing in this work, singing an unheeded lament that batters itself into oblivion against the mechanistic hollowness of flutter-tongued flutes and percussion.

This was the BBCSO at their best, with even the back desks of strings bringing the soloistic urgency to their performance that has so transformed Gardner’s English National Opera orchestra pit. In the midst of life (where more clamorously insistent than this season of Nativity?) Gardner and the orchestra plunged us into death and the chill was as brutal as it was exquisite.


You brought the flavour of the big works to life. But Sibelius's text for 'Come away, death' is in Swedish, not Finnish (only a few of his songs are in Finnish, including the third we heard last night). And I think you're a bit hard on the Sibelius Belshazzar's Feast - incidental music for what sounds like an undistinguished play. The flute solo is lovely, too, and the final dance is a lively Sibelius miniature. Slight, but not unoriginal, and well placed at that point.

Apologies Pia, it was of course a Swedish rather than Finnish translation  and I have now changed the text accordingly.

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