A noble performance of Beethoven’s familiar Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 61 opened Sunday’s Koussevitzky Music Shed concert in which Guest Conductor Bramwell Tovey and violinist Pinchas Zuckerman delivered a truly exceptional performance. Alternately meditative, exalted, and at its end elegantly dance-like, this concerto is one of Beethoven’s supreme creations. Composed in 1806 concurrently with the composer’s Fourth Symphony and Fourth Piano Concerto — works which share many of the same serene moods and melodic traceries — the Violin Concerto eschews outward trappings of virtuosity in favor of a particularly poignant, inward-looking exposition. As the BSO’s Director of Publications Marc Mandel so eloquently wrote: “…the most significant demand this piece places upon the performer is the need for utmost musicality of expression, virtuosity of a special, absolutely crucial sort.” Zuckerman and Tovey made all of this readily evident in the opening of the first movement, where Tovey’s careful shaping of phrases and his attention paid to the p-pp-ppp end of the dynamic spectrum was immediately riveting and ingratiating. Zuckerman exhibited an almost uncanny sense of spellbinding story-telling. Bassoonists Richard Svoboda and Suzanne Nelsen proved equally superb in first-movement duet, and French hornists Jason Snider and Michael Winter produced wonderful tones in the second movement. And, is there anything more beautiful than a rapt and shimmering pianissimo from BSO strings?
Overall, this rivaled Joshua Bell’s outing with The Academy of St, Martin’s in the Fields 2012 in Symphony Hall, which left me nearly speechless for its perfection. Zuckerman’s masterful grace and sweet sonority made a perfect match to this concerto’s many challenges of inward glances and deep, quiet emotion. And when asked to rollick he did so with grace and charm. His execution of two cadenzas by Fritz Kreisler was richly detailed and dramatically dovetailed. Tovey accompanied with exemplary sensitivity
William Walton’s thrilling Belshazzar’s Feast, a dramatic and entertaining work for mixed choir, baritone solo, and orchestra served as the second half of this most interesting concert. This 1931 composition calls for a very large orchestra with a multitude of percussion, organ, and stereophonic brass bands. Within this tapestry of orchestral color Walton wrote a very demanding role for chorus and the baritone soloist. Both tell the tale of the pagan king Belshazzar, whose father Nebuchadnezzar had sacked the temple in Jerusalem and stolen its holy gold and silver vessels. Belshazzar defiles these vessels with an orgy of food and wine in his palace, which occasions a memorable Biblical moment: fingers of a disembodied hand interrupt the festivities and write a message of doom on the palace wall: “Thou art weighed in the balance, and found wanting.” That night, Belshazzar is slain and his kingdom of Babylon subsequently dissolved, occasioning exuberant celebration.
Legend has it that before the work’s premiere in Leeds, Sir Thomas Beecham, in a rare moment of questionable judgement predicted the work would fail, told Walton: “As you’ll never hear the thing again, my boy, why not throw in a couple of brass bands? There are some excellent ones around.” Walton obliged, and Belshazzar’s Feast made a sensation at its premiere, assuring the composer’s success among the concert-going public to this day. The text, drawn from The Play of Daniel and Psalms 137 and 81, was arranged by Osbert Sitwell.
The music is very cannily and dramatically planned, opening with an imposing trombone intonation that is answered by the chorus men who forebodingly proclaim: “Thus spake Isaiah: Thy sons that thou shall beget, they shall be taken away, and be eunuchs in the palace of the King of Babylon. Howl ye, therefore: for the day of the Lord is at hand.” I was pleased that the singers properly intoned the British pronunciation of the prophet’s name (“ei-zei-ah”).
There follows a heartfelt lament sung by the entire chorus: “By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down: yea, we wept.” The baritone soloist sings of the greatness of Babylon, the profane city-state ruled by Belshazzar. Among its riches, he sings, are gold, silver, precious stones, fine linen, ivory, wine, oil, and beasts — sheep, horses, chariots, and most notably: “slaves, and the souls of men.” Ryan Speedo Green, an imposing American bass-baritone, easily projected mellifluous tones to the back rows of the shed, and likely beyond.
James David Christie deserves a callout for how he dispatched great and essential deep pedal foundation from the Koussevitzky shed organ with knowing panache.
The chorus sings of the bacchanal, with Belshazzar and his people praising in turn the Gods of Gold, Silver, Iron, Wood, Stone, Brass, all of which are colorfully portrayed by various appropriate instruments in the orchestra. At the end of this litany, the people proclaim that this wealthy King ought to live forever. This ultimate profanation leads to the appearance of the disembodied hand and its deadly message, accompanied by spookily rattling castanets and wailing high-pitched celli. In the big dramatic moment of the piece, as the baritone soloist tells of the King’s demise, the chorus cries out the word “Slain!”— a wonderful effect that still impresses with its originality. There follows great rejoicing in the chorus and orchestra.
James Burton, the new BSO Choral Director and Conductor of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, expertly prepared the ensemble. This concert was the singers’ third outing of the weekend with a vocally demanding score. Only twelve or so hours earlier they had robustly essayed Berlioz’s demanding Te Deum with the BSO, and this was after a long open rehearsal of the Walton only hours before — a lot to ask of singers.
Of the many memorable episodes in this dramatic work, I was especially moved by the chorus near the music’s end as it sang a cappella of the silence in Babylon after the great kingdom’s fall: “The trumpeters and pipers are silent, And the harpers have ceased to harp, And the light of a candle shall shine no more.”
The chorus rose mightily to the occasion, supplying abundant force, nuance, and great color as demanded by a very tricky score, full of potential pitfalls for everyone. Despite a couple of fleeting moments when the orchestra, chorus, and soloist lost track of one another, everyone deeply impressed.
John W. Ehrlich is music director of Spectrum Singers, which he founded 37 years ago. He has been a singer and conductor in the Boston area for more than 45 years.