Kiril Karabits conducted the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra and the National Youth Choir of Great Britain in a Prom featuring Beethoven, Richard Strauss and William Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast but the gem was a miniature, Prokofiev’s cantata Seven, they are Seven op 30. If Seven, They are Seven could ever be a “miniature”, that is. Though it runs barely seven minutes it’s so concentrated that once heard, it’s never forgotten. Valery Gergiev conducted it with the London Symphony Orchestra in March 2007, nearly lifting the roof off the Barbican Hall. At the Royal Albert Hall, with its cavernous capacity and raised dome, it might be less of a bone shaker, but is still an experience. An ideal vehicle for the National Youth Choir of Great Britain to let rip.
The text for Seven, they are Seven is taken from a Mesopotamian script describing the beginning of time, when seven demonic gods control creation. Malevolent gods, and violent. Since Prokofiev was writing in 1917, we can reasonably assume he wasn’t writing about Tigris and Euphrates 5000 years ago, but about Russia at a time of upheaval. A loud crash, followed by a scream in which the whole choir can indulge in force. The piece is written for tenor, but relatively few have the dark timbre and forceful projection to carry off its vocal extremes, pitted against a huge orchestra and choir. David Butt Philip manages well, his voice carrying over the thumping ostinato behind him. One man against the forces of hell. The choral line is equally dramatic: repeated lines, some thumping, others wildly angular, wavering like flames and winds. Suddenly the volume drops. Cymbals crash, timpani rumble. Butt Philip sings sotto voce, intoning mysterious prayer.
From a rarity to a hardy perennial, William Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast. The setting is again ostensibly Babylon, but the real reason for including it in this Prom was to give the Choir another chance to shine. And they did! The freshness of younger voices adds to the sense of excitement: Walton’s score is quasi Hollywood, maximizing excess, with brass bands thrown into the heady mix. Biblical as its context may be, it’s hardly pious, but very much a piece of its time (1931) when the jazz age still prevailed and the Bright Young Things partied like there’d be no tomorrow, Belshazzar’s having a rave. “Babylon was a great city” sang James Rutherford, enumerating the treasures: “…chariots, slaves and the souls of men”. Singing with unbridled delight, the choir seemed to be having a good time. “Praise thee !, Praise thee !” But as we know, parties don’t last forever. Ominous sounds from the orchestra. The King sees a hand writing on the wall “Mene, mene tekel upharsim”. The “Hebrew” sound of trumpets. the choir emphasising the baritone’s words with dramatic finality “Slain !” Slain!” Then we’re back to zany 30’s celebration. “Hallelujah ! Hallelujah!” Flamboyant riffs give way to ecstatic swoons. “And the Light of the Lord shall shine on us”. Yet more ecstatic Hallelujahs. “Make a joyful noise!” The photo above, from the choir’s 2016 Prom, illustrates the vibe so well.