Antal Dorati dropped a real blockbuster on last night's National Symphony audience in the Kennedy Center, and everyone seemed to love it.
Making full use of the superb Maryland University chorus, trained by Paul Traver, and with the added beauty of the Singing Boys of Pennsylvania, Dorati opened the evening with the haunting sounds of Zoltan Kodaly's "Psalmus Hungaricus." To a Hungarian adaptation of Psalm 55, Kodaly wrote music of wrenching loveliness. The anguish of betrayal by a close friend -- David's in the psalm, Kodaly's in actuality -- is reserved largely for the tenor, sung by Lajos Kozma.
Known from his recording of the work, Kozma projectd both the tenderness of the work and its outbursts of anger with consummate art.
He made his voice, capable of great power up to a brilliant top, especially moving in the quiet passages. The chorus, seemingly undaunted by the challenge of singing in the original Hungarian, was a joy throughout.
The evening's second work was William Walton's first great public success, his setting of "Belshazzar's Feast," with its famous passage, "Mene mene tekel upharsin -- thou art weighed in the balance and found wanting.' Now a half century old, the music is a mixture of glorious choral writing, surrounded by some magnificent orchestral effects and some pages that are pure tacky trash.
Dorati, who had led the Kodaly with limitless vigor and total authority over every nuance, seemed less in union with the Walton, especially at first. For a time things came out rather square and a bit lacking in animation. What is depicted as one of the great Babylonian orgies was more like Handel's "pious orgies."
As the work progressed, things picked up and the finale was properly wild. The requisite brass bands, seven in each, were well placed on either side of the stage, and the tumult was exciting. Strangely, however, the immaculately trained chorus was often simply not loud enough. There can be no restraints in the noisy pages of this piece: it should sound much more the way Maryland sounded the night it played Georgetown.
Benjamin Luxon, the baritone soloist, was disconcertingly ineffectual in his opening solos, making little of the text until he reached the lines beginning "And in that same hour." At that point his rather covered, reserved style was appropriate.
Three more performances of this concert remain this week. It would be well to catch one of them.