Sydney Opera House, Concert Hall
November 24, 2017

It’s oratorio season. Between the countless Messiahs springing up around the country and the Australian Chamber Orchestra touring Bach’s Christmas Oratorio in December, there’s no shortage of fodder for choral aficionados. But David Robertson’s Belshazzar’s Feast programme with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, which paired William Walton’s oratorio based on the story of the writing on the wall from the biblical Book of Daniel with Hungarian composer Péter Eötvös’ new Halleluja – Oratorium Balbulum, was something else entirely.

Commissioned by the Salzburg Festival – where it premiered – and a string of other collaborators, including the SSO, Eötvös’ “Stuttering Oratorio” eschews spiritual conviction or biblical inspiration for a more questioning tone, the four movements of the work asking Who are we?, Where are we?, What do we want? and What do we keep silent about? With a playful, self-aware German libretto by the late Hungarian writer Péter Esterházy, this is an oratorio for our uncertain times.

Sydney Symphony OrchestraMichelle DeYoung, Martin Crewes, David Robertson and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. Photo © Ken Butti

Glittering fragmentary sound opened the work, smooth slashes of strings and brass sweeping crescendos across the orchestra, before Robertson had to wait and prompt the reluctant Narrator to begin. Martin Crewes ­– who played Giuseppe Zangara in the Hayes Theatre’s wonderful recent production of Sondheim’s Assassins – made a conversational Narrator, self deprecatingly describing himself as “just a pretentious bit of stage business.” He nonetheless guided the audience through the work – four ‘fragments’ – in English, with charm and verve, the traditional narrator role mingling with that of commentator.

He was joined onstage by Finish tenor Topi Lehtipu, who created the role of the stammering Prophet (a nod to the ninth-century Notker of St Gallen, who wrote some of the earliest music by a known composer) at the Salzburg premiere and has performed it many times since. He brought a clean clarity to his stuttering part, projecting his vocal fragments resonantly, but with a sense of palpable anxiety – this was not a prophet confident of nailing down the future.

Rounding out the soloists was mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung, bringing her flowing tone to an Angel who got drunk with Nietzsche and never quite sobered up. While there were some moments early on when the balance had her slightly swamped by the orchestra, her warm, liquid voice was a pleasure, particular in her third movement Halleluja.

Michelle DeYoung, Martin Crewes, David Robertson, Topi Lehtipu and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. Photo © Ken Butti

Underscored by Eötvös’ mightily bombastic yet colourful score – which requires large orchestral forces augmented with a massive percussion section plus harps, piano, celesta and accordion – the oratorio mingles biblical allusions (“In the beginning was the Word”) with musical references, drawing on significant events throughout the last century or so – from the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand to the September 11 terrorist attacks – to explore the questions so baldly asked by the movements.

While this was by no means a traditional oratorio, it draws heavily on the tradition of oratorios, becoming a deconstruction of, or love song to, the form. “It is difficult to sing Halleluja when there is no God,” the Prophet admits in the third movement, but Hallelujas weave through the work (from Bach, Mozart and many more), a recurring structural motif from the very first unmistakable Halleluja from Handel’s Messiah.

Though the oratorio prompts spiralling questions that branch out ad infinitum, the work itself is tightly structured. The journey from capricious play to serious contemplation deftly paced, Esterházy’s text sliding away to humour just as the the heavier subjects are approached, often in wonderfully effective juxtapositions of the mundane and momentous – such as a woman ordering an apple juice, then changing her order to tomato, as her plane approaches the Twin Towers, the words “Salz” and “Pfeffer” (salt and pepper) ricocheting in the chorus.

It’s the chorus that’s the hero in this work. Against nervous Prophet and drunken, sarcastic Angel, the chorus – here beautifully sung by the Sydney Philharmonia Chamber Singers and VOX – is on a journey of self-discovery, flexing their power over sound and silence, concluding “we’re only a chorus if we sing.”

While Eötvös’ Halleluja – Oratorium Balbulum presents more questions than answers, and the ending isn’t exactly uplifting, it’s a smart, funny and tightly constructed work that plumbs depths that will no doubt reward repeated listening. Both the rich musical tapestry it draws on and the questions it throws up will give listeners plenty to chew on. But for all its intellectual games, it still gave me goose-bumps when the lights blacked out in the last bars, the surging chaos reduced finally to a lonely piano solo.

By contrast, William Walton’s oratorio Belshazzar’s Feast – which had its premiere at the Leeds Festival in 1931 – relies less on ambiguity, leaning more to dramatic story-telling than the contemplation of spiritual or philosophical ideas, drawing on bible verses assembled by Osbert Sitwell.

If the forces required for the Eötvös were large, the Walton was even larger, the orchestra flanked on either side by antiphonal brass sections (Walton apparently couldn’t resist making use of the extra brass players in town for some Berlioz). The trombones opened proceedings, launching the story of Belshazzar, which Walton brings to life in bold orchestral colours. Orchestral writing paints refulgent gold, brightly shining silver, dry wood and hard iron in music, at the feast where Belshazzar seals his doom – and that of his kingdom – by using the sacred vessels looted from the Temple of Jerusalem. While Walton writes the ghostly hand scratching signs on the wall – and the knee-knocking fear of the King – in sound, the story of the Prophet Daniel interpreting the signs (“Thou art weighed in the balance and found wanting”) are excised completely, Walton/Sitwell far less concerned with the importance of words and their deciphering than Eötvös/Esterházy.

Baritone Peter Coleman-Wright made a grim, effective soloist, standing in for Andrew Foster-Williams who cancelled due to illness, but as in the Eötvös it is the chorus who are the heroes, in this case representing the Jewish people. The Sydney Philharmonia Symphony Chorus was joined by the Tasmanian Symphony Chorus, the combined forces – who dispatched the text with generally excellent diction – created an incredibly rich, powerful sound, the destruction of Babylon and subsequent celebrations (Robertson driving syncopated joy and lilting dance-music) writ large in an ultimately awe-inspiring sonic experience.