It is always welcome when English music is conducted by those born outside these shores, if only to emphasise its often underappreciated universality. Tadaaki Otaka had chosen as his main work in this RPO concert Walton’s cantata-cum-oratorio, Belshazzar’s Feast, which no less a luminary that Karajan regarded as the greatest choral work of the first half of the 20th century. Influences in the composition of this piece are there many. In his Lancashire childhood Walton would have had the sounds of local brass bands ringing in his ears and heard numerous performances of the great oratorios, including those by Elgar with their model of a continuous music drama. His progression from a chorister in Oxford to the musical enfant terrible of the 1920s was swift. Just before receiving a BBC commission for what eventually turned into a gargantuan choral piece he would have witnessed the stir created by Constant Lambert’s Rio Grande. And the chilling orchestral effects and spookiness just before “the writing on the wall” owe much to the influence of Strauss in Salome. In fact, with two separate brass bands, positioned in this performance antiphonally in the lower boxes, two harps and a battery of percussion including tambourine, glockenspiel, xylophone, gong, anvil, whip and Chinese block, Walton throws everything but the kitchen sink at an expectant audience.

Tadaaki Otaka © Masahide Sato
Tadaaki Otaka
© Masahide Sato

With such a strong narrative element unfolding over ten linked but distinct sections, a lot depends on the ability of the baritone soloist to project the drama and atmosphere of a hedonistic world revelling in excesses of all kinds. Neal Davies communicated much of this decadent spirit very effectively, rising to the cataclysmic “.....was Belshazzar the King slain”, with the final word of this phrase spat out blood-curdlingly, and immediately echoed in similar fashion by the chorus. Earlier, in his unaccompanied recitative, “Babylon was a great city”, his intonation had noticeably wavered.

Otaka took an expansive view of the score, with no great sense of urgency, but alive to the many incidental felicities. This is a piece of wild extremes, with heavy syncopation in the final Alleluias betraying the unmistakeable influence of jazz, and electrically-charged rhythms driving much of the orchestral writing, but it does have  a surprising number of chamber-like delicacies and crystalline effects to beguile the ear. Such details were moulded judiciously by Otaka, not least in the many instances where the lower strings – in partnership with the lower brass or contra-bassoon – give expression to the sense of impending doom before Belshazzar meets his fate.

Unfortunately, the Bach Choir was not in its most resplendent form, having started with somewhat shaky ensemble. For this work to be utterly compelling it needs a firmer body of sound than on this occasion and an ability to cut through the waves of orchestral sound which the composer unleashes in the final pages.

The concert had begun with a piece that Elgar dedicated to “My many friends, the members of British orchestras”, his concert overture Cockaigne which has no distinct narrative theme but which with its rapidly changing moods – at times ruminative, wistful, confident, withdrawn, skittish, hesitant and finally jubilant – presents a sound-picture of the fictitious “Land of All Delights”. At the start, the bright-toned upper strings of the RPO established a chirpiness, with the rounded brass ‘speaking’ in response. However, Otaka couldn’t quite free himself from a sedateness suggestive of an all too gentle promenade; there are elements of jauntiness corresponding to the spirit of the ‘cheeky chappy Cockney’ which require sharper accentuation.

Elgar devoted much more attention to choral writing than to the comparative intimacy of the human voice, writing no more than 50 songs. His Sea Pictures have, however, maintained a popularity with audiences, despite the second-rate poetry of the texts and the absence of any thematic coherence. Indeed, because the moods are very different it is a moot point whether the traditional order of the songs should be set in stone. To be sure, the final song, “The Swimmer”, is the only one of the five not to end quietly, but in many respects the repeated “Good-nights” of the “Sea Slumber-Song”, with the accompanying caressing orchestral textures would make an ideal postlude.

These songs were originally written for soprano and then transposed at the request of Dame Clara Butt, who gave the first performance. Sarah Connolly has lived with these little jewels for quite some time and here demonstrated a commendable care for the words, shaping her phrases with sensitivity. In the third song, “Sabbath Morning at Sea”, the voice opened out tellingly at “God’s Spirit shall give comfort”. However, although the voice soared and rode the orchestral waves, it was tested in the lower chest registers: Elgar requires a challengingly wide tessitura throughout. Not the least of the delights in the accompaniment was Otaka’s attention to the oriental effects in “Where Corals Lie”.

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