ENDNOTES, April 2018
In this edition: 20th-century choral music by Sir Arthur Bliss, Frank Martin and Bohuslav Martinu; piano concertos by Grieg and Delius, reviewed by STUART MILLSON
Two superbly-produced CDs of choral music have recently appeared – one, a magnificent recording and performance of Sir Arthur Bliss’s The Beatitudes, a large-scale and much-overlooked piece, originally written for the 1962 consecration of the new Coventry Cathedral; the other, a more introspective selection of music for voices by the Swiss composer, Frank Martin, and the Czech, Bohuslav Martinu.
For many years, Bliss’s music has suffered a degree of neglect – overshadowed by the brilliance of Britten and the grandeur and bitter-sweet romanticism of Walton. Yet in many of his works from the early-to-mid-20th-century, a surge of sometimes spiky, Stravinsky-like energy is to be found in abundance. A lively vocalise, suggesting spring vitality and fresh air, entitled Rout; the soaring, mercurial A Colour Symphony, and the later Metamorphic Variations, show Bliss to be a true voice of the 20th-century, and yet his choral-orchestral Beatitudes (originally billed for Coventry Cathedral) appear to have been displaced and marginalised by Britten’s War Requiem.
So it is gratifying that the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, conducted by Sir Andrew Davis, have brought Bliss back from obscurity in a performance combining power, commitment, belief and – in its quieter, shadowy moments of reflection – a meditative sanctity. The opening section, played with enormous control by the BBC SO (a truly specialist body for 20th-century music) sets the scene for the piece’s overall spiritual uplift. There are fine sections for the principal flute, suggesting the composer’s other impressive choral-orchestral, Pastoral – Lie Strewn the White Flocks; and passages of monumental grandeur for full chorus and brass – with, alongside the expected conventional religious parts, Matthew and Isaiah, settings of Dylan Thomas’s And death shall have no dominion, and George Herbert’s “Rise Heart, thy Lord has risen…”
Yet in truth, The Beatitudes– for all of its quality and many visionary moments – does have some weak moments, an occasional lack of structural solidity and a tendency to be “out of focus”. It is not as taut as Britten’s War Requiem, and without the single, purposeful force which characterises that composer’s marshalling of brass in the sections reminiscent of Verdi’s Requiem. Nevertheless,the Bliss contribution to Coventry all those years ago is still worthy of our attention – especially in its fervent conclusion.
Also appearing on this expansive, highly-detailed recording, are the orchestral Introduction and Allegro, revised by the composer in 1937 – and with more admirably breath taking playing by the BBC’s flagship orchestra; and a 1969 three-verse setting of God Save the Queen– whose exciting, dotted prelude confirms Bliss, a Master of the Queen’s Musick, as a true exponent of ceremony and celebration.
On a smaller scale and composed in 1922, the Mass for two four-part choirs by Frank Martin, is given a truly impeccable interpretation (on the OUR label – a name connected to Naxos) by the Danish National Vocal Ensemble – the elite choral group of Denmark’s broadcasting service. The DR Vokal Ensemble performs under the direction of Marcus Creed, former Professor of Choral Conducting at the Hochschule for Music, Cologne and was recorded in the studios of Danish radio. The clarity of the singers is truly the hallmark of this production: their voices bringing a crystal clarity – bell-like and pingingly on the note – to Martin’s surprisingly classical, even English-sounding Mass. One is reminded in places of Vaughan Williams’s Mass. The opening Kyrie echoes all the true sacred feeling of this music of affirmation and is evocative of J.S. Bach, a composer who was for Martin a foundation stone in culture. Also inspired by Shakespeare, Martin evokes the elemental magic and mystery of The Tempest, and gives new life to the Songs of Ariel. Baritone Lauritz Jakob Thomsen takes us to that ‘Full Fathom Five’ – and a true air of the supernatural pervades the sequence of five songs.
The Danish vocalists also do full justice to the Four Songs of the Virgin Mary by Bohuslav Martinu, a composer who created a unique sound-world.
Finally, from Somm, comes a deeply-satisfying recording by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of Jan Latham-Koenig of the Grieg and Delius piano concertos. Mark Bebbington is the soloist on the disc, a player who has distinguished himself in a wide variety of repertoire, including important and rare works by Vaughan Williams. From the famous opening timpani roll of this well-known work by Grieg, the performance unfolds with a gentleness which one might have associated with his pieces for solo piano – Mark Bebbington getting very close to the essence of the great Norwegian composer, finding every nuance and breath of spring in this life-affirming music. But even greater is the rendition of the 1907 Delius Piano Concerto. Delius was a great admirer of Grieg and of the landscape of Scandinavia – writing often of a heightened emotional state which he felt in the high hills of Norway.
All of Delius’s nature-worship emerges in this superb concerto, and for a composer usually associated with a meandering impressionism – even a formless but always lyrical excess – the work has a well-worked-out structure. In many ways, it continues where the Grieg ended, but there is somehow a deeper romanticism to this concerto: a sense of the work “dwelling” at high altitudes; with great views over many miles – at times, an intensity which few other romantic concertos of this kind can match. In excellent form on this fine Somm CD, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra has all the softness of tone for which the ensemble (founded by Sir Thomas Beecham, and expert in the works of Delius) is renowned; and yet in the final movement – where the full passion of the piece is unleashed – the last minutes resemble a tide of immense weight breaking on rocks. With plenty of “air” around the music – helping to create a profound sonority – the cymbal clash just before the conclusion rings out majestically over an orchestra from which power and sinewy sound flow like a mountain torrent. Truly gorgeous orchestral playing from the RPO, captured in the perfect acoustic.
What a pity then that last month the Administrative Head of the RPO announced that he would like to abolish the term “classical music” – believing it to be an off-putting term to younger people, reflecting the dire mentality now prevalent in music and the arts that everything must be watered down for the dubious cause of so-called “outreach”. With jazz, “world music” and heavy metal, to name but a few, proudly proclaiming their musical creed, we need classical music to thrive as never before – in as uncompromising a way as possible. And this was the message which I delivered to readers of The Daily Telegraph in a letter published on the 23rd of March, entitled “Watery Music”.
Bliss, The Beatitudes, Chandos CHSA 5191.
Choral works by Martin and Martinu, OUR Recordings 6.220671
Grieg and Delius Piano Concertos, SOMMCD 269. (The CD also contains a recording of Grieg’s attempts at a Second Piano Concerto – a fascinating glimpse into a “lost” work.)
Stuart Millson is QR’s classical music editor