I must confess at the outset that Belshazzar’s Feast had never taken my fancy but if ever a performance were to tip the scales, it would be this one. Sir Colin and his LSO forces are in sizzling form in this truly revolutionary take on the often turgid oratorio form. They capture perfectly the coiled spring tension and the jagged, snarling, jazz-inflected rhythms and whisk us through one scene after another.
Walton’s orchestration is stunning: to cite just two of many moments, the way the sounds imitate the description of Babylon’s obscene riches and the creepy instrumental accompaniment to the singer’s (Peter Coleman-Wright in fine form) description of the “writing on the wall”.
In what may perhaps be an unlikely coupling, Walton’s First Symphony finds the same forces less impressive. The first movement contains some of the most explosive, searing music ever composed. You can almost smell rubber on tarmac. Walton went from the languid, effete, bright young thing of Façade to an angry young man. The benchmark will always be André Previn’s 1966 RCA recording with the same orchestra. Davis and his LSO just don’t cut it, along with everyone else. There’s nothing specifically wrong with it, it’s that Previn knocks it out of the stadium!
The other three movements fare better, with the Scherzo (famously and uniquely marked con malizia, “with malice”) genuinely sardonic and the slow movement radiating a louche melancholy. The originally problematic finale is still a challenge with its mix of heraldic passages, spiky fugue and life-affirming sense of triumph. Here both conductor and orchestra are at their best.