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Customer Review

on 9 March 2011
I must confess I have awaited this recording with both anticipation and trepidation. Why? Anticipation, because I love this music; and trepidation because of the track record of poor sound quality in LSO Live recordings at the Barbican.

Let's see how it turned out. Let me first say I will focus here on the Belshazzar; the symphony has already been released on this label. In a nutshell, I found that performance good but not great- it lacked the raw electricity of the best Previn or Mackerras recordings. And the sound was dismal- dry, up -front and unappealing, in best `LSO Live' tradition.

So, what of Belshazzar? I have loved this piece ever since hearing it performed live in a historic 1976 (July 4th!) performance the LSO and Previn at the Festival Hall. I have written about this elsewhere, so won't bang on about this again here...

Belshazzar's Feast is an extravagantly extrovert romp of a piece. Its gestation was fascinating. The story is told of the young Walton, who had been commissioned to write a choral piece for the Leeds Festival in 1931, seeking advice from Tommy Beecham. He advised Walton that the massive Berlioz Requiem was also to be performed at this event. With such gargantuan musical forces available, asked Walton, why not use them for his new piece? `Why not' grumbled Tommy, `you'll never hear the work again'.

Needless to say, he was wrong. So here we have a block-buster of a piece with large orchestra and double choir, off-stage brass bands, baritone soloist, more percussion you can shake a stick at, and an organ. Plus the kitchen sink. Needless to say, this is an ideal piece for SACD, although large acoustic spaces are essential for the piece to breathe and make its fullest impact. So, perhaps, the Barbican with its cramped, dry acoustic might be just about the worst place on the planet to perform it...

But let's not pre-judge. How does it actually turn out? Well, there is good news and bad news. The performance is good, but not great. Hang on, didn't we hear that earlier in the review, about the coupled symphony? Well, it's just as valid a comment here. Belshazzar has a magnificent recording history, with notable performances from Walton himself, Previn, Litton and Hickox; this is quintessentially a young man's piece, and needs fast tempi, swing, precision, exuberance and sensitivity to its more jagged, jazzy episodes.

By that measure, I'm afraid, this performance sounds just a bit light on raw electricity and crackle. And overall tempi are often just a bit too deliberate for the whole thing to catch fire. What's more, it pains me to say, the playing and ensemble is not always impeccable. It's a difficult piece, being played live, so some consideration is due. Nevertheless, compared with the swaggering energy and staggering playing of -say - the 1972. Previn recording (in EMI Golden Age Bishop/Parker analogue sound, no less), it comes up short.

So, what about the sound? I listened to the SACD stereo layer. And here, believe it or not, we have some slightly better news. Compared with most LSO Lives I have heard, this recording has noticeably more space, air and transparency - just as well, to accommodate the huge forces deployed! Listening to the Belshazzar, first on the disc, and then moving on to the earlier symphony (recorded in 2005), it's just like dropping a large woollen blanket over the sound...

That's where the good news ends, though. The sound is still noticeably over-miked, with instruments dropping in and out of the mix at will. A few examples - where did the organ go, guys? Not to mention the feeblest ever anvil in ` Praise ye the god of Iron'. And god only knows where the antiphonal brass bands in `Praise ye the god of Brass' are coming from...

Tonally, it's all a bit coarse sounding, and it thickens more during some of the stupendous climaxes.

So, there are better performances of both pieces on both CD and vinyl. This is, however, the only Belshazzar on SACD. Well, that really matters not, because in real world sound quality, even on a high-end player and system, this recording actually sounds like a bog-standard CD.

To wrap things up in the words of the choir itself, in fact, one could say about this recording `Thou art weighed in the balance, and found wanting'.
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