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Kit Bailey of BBC Website

reviews John Playford's Secret Ball by Belshazzar's Feast

I must admit that I was a bit lazy when I first put this CD on - initially I thought that it wasn’t going to make much of an impression. Ironically, I think this may have been because I’d enjoyed Belshazzar’s Feast so much live at Sidmouth and was unsure how they would translate onto CD. It was a strange gig in itself, as Paul Sartin was unavoidably late so we had Belshazzar’s Snack for a while in the shape of a solo Paul Hutchinson. He held his own admirably with some really lovely piano accordion playing as well as some very funny asides. When Paul S did finally arrive it was then that I realized what the act was all about and they put on a really delightful concert that had the audience giggling at some very slick onstage banter. They are genuinely funny on stage but this isn’t the only thing you remember them for because they are both excellent musicians.
For this CD - their fourth - they’ve drafted in friends Robert Harbron, who plays with Paul S in Dr Faustus and William Balkwill on trumpet, both fine additions to the overall sound - particularly Rob’s English concertina on Mundesse. They both contribute some lovely playing, adding guitar, mandolin and bassoon as well, but it is the two Pauls (Sartin on oboe and violin (or is it a fiddle?), Hutchinson on piano accordion) that shine through at the end of the day.
Playford’s tunes are recognizably wonderful and they’ve put together some great arrangements of them: rich, full and driving like the opener, Maiden Lane; sparse and forceful as on the fiddle piece The Maid Peeped Out at the Window; intricate concertina/accordion duets (Parson Upon Dorothy); a wonderful smooth and stately Gathering Peascods using all the wind/reed instruments to full effect.  1651 have also released a CD of Playford tunes, but you couldn’t get two more different renditions of the same composer. Where 1651 has explored all the underlying darkness in Playford’s compositions, Belshazzar’s Feast has brought out all the bright, joyful sides of them, which suits the personalities of the two Pauls well. Both are albums worth having - Playford to suit your mood!
There are other duos that play this style of music, which may account for the initial sense of familiarity, but it doesn’t take long for that to be challenged.  What does it for me in particular is Paul Sartin’s oboe playing. When he floats a melody over the top on the oboe, as on Parson’s Farewell, it really is a beautiful thing. This album will be enjoyed by Playford enthusiasts, people who enjoy a damn good tune and lovers of virtuoso playing whatever the type of music. Seeing Belshazzar’s Feast live will increase your enjoyment of this CD and if you’ve only heard the CD, you’ll have at least 70% of an idea of what to expect when you see them live. Even if you don’t get the jokes, you’ll love the music!