LENOX — "Make a joyful noise unto the Lord," the Bible commands us. Tanglewood responded Sunday afternoon with William Walton's oratorio "Belshazzar's Feast," raising enough ruckus, both solemn and joyful, to be heard somewhere up in the divine regions.
The ghosts of both Napoleon, the emperor overthrown by the French, and Belshazzar, the king overthrown by God, rose in lengthy choral works performed by the Boston Symphony Orchestra over the weekend. The moral seemed to be that if you were a ruler evil enough, some composer somewhere would write a work celebrating your deeds in song.
But Belshazzar: Now, there was a real baddy, guilty of gluttony, greed and theft calling for melodrama, spectacle - even a bit of cheesiness. But some cheeses are better than others. Under conductor Bramwell Tovey, the BSO, Tanglewood Festival Chorus and bass-baritone Ryan Speedo Green, as soloist, told the tale of the handwriting on the wall and its awful consequences for the king. Tremble, ye tyrants.
Berlioz' Te Deum and "Belshazzar's Feast" were the major offerings in the pair of BSO programs featuring the 100-strong festival chorus, prepared by its new conductor, James Burton. The Saturday night concert, conducted by Charles Dutoit and culminating in the Berlioz work, was all-French.
Rarely performed (hereabouts anyway), "Belshazzar's Feast" sets biblical texts recounting the king's gluttonous repast during Israelites' captivity in Babylon. The BSO and its singing partners didn't stint as Walton throws the works at you in effects that range from solemn a cappella choruses at the outset to two extra brass bands that reinforce triumphant alleluias thundered out by the chorus at the end.
Graphic effects abounded. As the soloist enumerated the blasphemous inventory of the king's stolen treasures, the orchestra replied in kind with sounds of clinking silver, slapping wood, and so forth. Similarly, after the soloist, in recitative, announced the hand mysteriously writing a warning on the wall, the chorus shouted out fateful declaration: Found wanting. Throughout, the choral writing is vivid and polyphonic.
Tovey had full command of the large performing forces, and Green was a booming narrator, issuing commandments like a prophet. If the chorus, spread out across the back of the Shed stage, wasn't always together, it hardly mattered, so fearful was the impact.
Incongruously, the program opened with the Beethoven Violin Concerto before descending into gluttony and sin. There was nothing incongruous about Pinchas Zukerman's solo work, though. With penetrating but clear tone, he offset moments of showiness with generous amounts of suavity, finding felicities of phrase in the familiar music. Tovey led a somewhat muscular yet sympathetic accompaniment.
Sin, of course, is more fun than sermon. Berlioz' Te Deum (Thee God) is a weak brother to his more daring, theatrical Requiem.
Berlioz composed the Te Deum, according to the program notes, to celebrate — and, incidentally, curry favor with — Louis-Napoleon on his coronation. When the new emperor turned a deaf ear, Berlioz longed for the glories of France uncle Louis' uncle Napoleon (the same Napoleon, of course, whom Beethoven renounced in his "Eroica" Symphony).
Whatever the politics, the Te Deum in this performance ground on, relentlessly solemn, without much variety of effect in the massed voices. Nor did the BSO sound entirely confident.
As in the Requiem, a tenor (Paul Groves, who sang with quiet dignity) issues a prayer near the end. The finale, a cry for divine justice, recycled its motif endlessly, ever louder, until finally reinforced by pealing organ, clanging cymbals and tattoos of drums, it rose to almost numbing effect.
The real glory of the evening was Ravel's Piano Concerto for the left hand, with Pierre-Laurent Aimard as soloist. Ravel composed the piece for Austrian pianist Paul Wittgenstein, who lost his right arm in World War I. A thudding, jazz-inflected march at the end only adds to an overhanging feeling of dread. Aimard's single hand did the work of two in technical mastery and expressive effect. In a performance like this, even terror can be seductive.
Aimard received an encore, Pierre Boulez' dizzying "Notation IV."
The program opened with Stravinsky's "Chant fun bre," reconstructed from parts lost during the Russian Revolution and only recently recovered. It was a memorial to Stravinsky's teacher Rimsky-Korsakov and a precursor of Stravinsky's own "Firebird."