Walton: Belshazzar’s Feast; Symphony No. 1

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

WORKS: Belshazzar’s Feast; Symphony No. 1
PERFORMER: Peter Coleman-Wright (baritone); London Symphony Chorus & Orchestra/Colin Davis

If you like your Walton unleashed at full and scalding voltage, look no further. The London Symphony Orchestra’s trademark virtuosity and panache are so great, and the players’ unravelling of Walton’s demanding part-writing in the First Symphony so clear, that their performance penetrates straight to the heart of the music. And for all that Colin Davis has put himself on record as a conductor who in his interpretations these days is ‘looking for space’, here he comes up just as often with a tight-reined approach to pacing that convinces strongly. 
In Belshazzar’s Feast the opening ‘By the waters of Babylon’ section often risks portentousness in other performances: thanks to Davis’s unlingering approach, there’s no trace of this. The central ‘Feast’ and closing ‘Hymn of Praise’ are each propelled by a rampant percussive firepower that, while never rushed, seriously thrills. Peter Coleman-Wright is a formidable soloist; and while the chorus’s intonation does lurch about a bit, that’s understandable in a full-tilt live performance like this one.
Yet again, however, the Barbican Hall’s drawbacks as a recording venue have to be noted. It isn’t finally the orchestra’s or recording team’s fault that the sound, like the acoustic itself, remains tiresomely constricted – above all in Belshazzar, where the too-small concert platform has restricted the size of the chorus to well short of what the work requires. The First Symphony comes off better in this respect. While not even Colin Davis’s sharp-focus expertise can keep its slow movement from sprawling a little too much, the rapier-like accuracy and crackling electricity generated elsewhere are something to wonder at. Malcolm Hayes