WALTON: Belshazzar’s Feast; Symphony No. 1 – London Symphony Orchestra/ Sir Colin Davis – LSO Live multichannel SACD LSO0681, 80:17 (Distr. by Harmonia mundi) *****:
Walton’s First Symphony was released in 2005 by LSO as a single disc, and here it has been paired with the work created consecutively by Walton, and using the full 80-minute limit even though a hybrid SACD. Belshazzar’s Feast is one of Walton’s most celebrated compositions and one of the most popular choral/orchestral works in the English language. Osbert Sitwell selected its texts from the Bible, and it tells the story of Belshazzar’s great feast in Babylon, where the Jews are in exile. He commits the sacrilege of using the Jews’ sacred vessels to praise his heathen gods, so he is miraculously killed, his kingdom falls, and the Jews get their freedom.
The story of the mysterious hand that writes on the wall about his demise is treated by Walton in the most dramatic manner, and the chorus puts all their gusto in shouting out the refrain “Slain!” describing what follows for Belshazzar. Besides the very colorful and dynamic orchestrations, the unusual percussion aping the items of gold, iron and so forth, and the exotic and sometimes jazzy harmonies, the oratorio is rather short – a nice plus vs. most oratorios. In spite of its stridency and wildness, the work is essentially tonal in style, which has also ensured its popularity with the masses. Two brass bands add their swagger to the thrilling performance; it’s too bad the LSO engineers didn’t spread them out on the surround channels as done with some of the SACDs of the Berlioz Requiem brass choirs.
The First Symphony was written by Walton during the 1930s and shows some of the tensions of the period under its surfaces. He had quite a lengthy struggle composing it, starting with the slow movement. In some ways it is nearly as dramatic a score as Belshazzar’s Feast. The influence of Sibelius was strong with British composers of the period, but Walton expressed a very personal voice. The symphonic tensions he set up in the work give it a gripping character not often heard in Sibelius. Its violent Scherzo movement is marked “with malice” – a unique practice.
The only other SACD recording of the Symphony is on the BIS label and not nearly as exciting nor as good hi-res sonics as this new LSO recording made live at London’s Barbican : 2008 for Belshazzar’s; 2005 for the Symphony. Andre Previn conducted the Symphony in a most dramatic style for RCA, but that was 1966 and the LP or CD sonics are not close to the quality of this SACD.
— John Sunier