The two stunning choral works the Peterborough Singers will perform in May could not be more different.
William Walton’s fiery drama Belshazzar’s Feast recreates the original “writing on the wall” story. The greedy and debauched King Belshazzar, after feasting and many other shenanigans, is “weighed in the balance, and found wanting.” His fall ends the Jews’ captivity by the waters of Babylon. The music is over-the-top theatrical and fiercely physical.
The Requiem by Gabriel Fauré, on the other hand, is serene and achingly beautiful, emphasizing joy and liberation rather than judgment. The music is understated and intensely spiritual.
Sponsored by TD Bank Group, this concert of contrasts is one not to be missed. And even though the Walton and Fauré compositions are fundamentally different in tone, the works are similar in a number of ways too.
“Both pieces were wildly popular around the time of World War II,” explains Peterborough Singers Artistic Director Syd Birrell. “Walton’s was an immediate success—the first audience sprang to its feet.”
“The Fauré Requiem had to wait awhile,” he adds. “But after it was first performed in England in the thirties, it became a firm favourite, rivalling Mozart’s Requiem by the fifties.”
Both works are also wonderful at painting emotional pictures, at telling a story with music as well as lyrics. Belshazzar’s Feast begins with a lament, builds to a climax during the feast scene, and ends with an exuberant and rhythmic song of praise. Fauré’s Requiem begins with a sudden and powerful chord that draws us into a deep and cosmic world. The choir responds, as if from far away, and starts the journey toward eternal rest.
Both pieces are challenging for choirs, too. And, when performed well, both sound effortless and are easy to listen to.
“Few great choral works are as difficult to learn as the Walton,” explains Birrell. “The rhythms are very complex, the intervals are hard to sing, and the music often moves at breakneck pace.” He adds, “This is likely the biggest challenge that the Peterborough Singers has ever faced.”
By contrast, the Fauré Requiem requires restrained and highly controlled singing, with careful attention to blend, so that not a single voice of the 100 singers is heard above the rest. “Every now and then, the choir lets loose with epic melodies (“Libera me”) that are an unrivalled thrill for both singers and audience,” says Birrell. “But the gorgeous sound of 100 perfectly blending voices is no easy task!”
Joining the Singers for this performance are guest soloists Andrew Tees (baritone) and Agnes Zsigovics (soprano). Both are favourites with Peterborough audiences and, indeed, with audiences across Canada and around the world.
Ian Sadler (organ) is also a very special guest. He has arranged Walton’s original score for maximum effect but using fewer musicians (the called for orchestra, two harps, two brass bands, and multitude of percussionists could not fit in the venue). Other guest artists include Colette Preston (piano) and Paul Otway (trumpet). They will be joined by trumpet, horn, and trombone players. A timpanist and two other percussionists, playing 15 or so different instruments, will complete the cast.