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Granville BANTOCK (1868-1946)
The Song of Songs - Days 2, 3, 5 (1926) [41.00] (days 3 and 5: first recordings)
Overture to a Greek Tragedy (1911) [17.54]
Pierrot of the Minute (1908) [12.11]
The Wilderness and the Solitary Place (1901) [6.19] (first recording)
Elizabeth Connell (sop)
Kim Begley (ten)
William Prideaux (bar)
RPO/Vernon Handley
rec. 1-2 April 2003, Watford Colosseum, London. DDD
HYPERION CDA67395
[77.58]


This is the sixth of Vernon Handley’s colourful Bantock albums for Hyperion.

Once again we have music writ large on a heroic, Late-Romantic (certainly with a capital ‘R’) scale, scored for a big orchestra and soprano and tenor soloists.

The main work is the Song of Songs conceived as a ‘Lyric Drama for music in 5 scenes’ and based upon the bible story of Solomon’s attempts to court a reluctant Shulamite maiden. Instead of the famous verses proclaimed in cool ecclesiastical terms here we have an exotic, sensuous, even voluptuous treatment, with the orchestra in full ‘Richard Straussian’ fervour. Take, for instance, the orchestral fantasy in the middle of the first section when the Shulamite maiden dreams ecstatically about her shepherd lover. Handley’s reading is full-blooded, bringing out all the detail, the shadings and subtleties of this complex, hedonistic, fragrant score.

The first - Second Day section opens with the Shulamite maiden awakening to discover her Shepherd lover outside Solomon’s palace in which she is being detained by the King. Kim Begley as the shepherd, his timbre very like Robert Tear, is ardent in trying to persuade her to ‘Rise up my love, my fair one, and come away … for lo the winter is past … the singing of the birds is come and the voice of the turtle (dove) is heard in our land …’ Elizabeth Connell as the Shulamite is suitably ecstatic at discovering her shepherd’s presence and darkens her voice dramatically as she proclaims, ‘Take us the foxes, the little foxes that spoil the vines: for our vines have tender grapes …’ The Third Day ‘chapter’ that forms the second section is purely orchestral. It is alive with music of drama and splendour to reflect Solomon’s tempting of the maiden with gifts, his barely suppressed impatience and then withdrawal; and tender music for the maiden’s reflections on her absent lover. The Fifth Day, third section, is set outside the palace with the lovers reunited. The highlight is their rapturous duet with those celebrated words – ‘Set me as a seal upon thine heart … Many waters cannot quench love … For love is strong as death…’ This duet is delivered by Connell and Begley in the enthusiastic, florid style prevalent around the period of its composition. Nevertheless it is hugely enjoyable.

This emphatic ‘Victorian/Edwardian’ delivery is also very much in evidence in the other Bantock biblical work here – The Wilderness and the Solitary Place. This is part 6 of a huge work, Christus, that Bantock completed in 700 pages of orchestral score. (He described it as a ‘Festival Symphony in 10 parts’.) The text is from Isaiah 35, beginning ‘The wilderness and the solitary place shall be glad for them; and the desert shall rejoice and blossom as the rose …’ and including ‘Then the eyes of the blind will be opened and the ears of the deaf shall be unstopped.’ The orchestral texture is again highly colourful with harp and tambourine – and cor anglais - very prominent.

Handley gives us a bewitching account of the popular Pierrot of the Minute. The delicate gossamer fairy flights – swooping, darting, circling, reminiscent of Berlioz’s Will o’ the Wisp music contrasts with the awkward galumphing of the hapless Pierrot anxious for the minute of bliss offered by the Moon-maiden that is inevitably followed by

his awakening to reality. The love music is rapt and dreamlike and reminiscent of Bantock’s Fifine.

Finally the Overture to a Greek Tragedy is another work conceived on a broad heroic canvas, this time devoted to the latter part of the Oedipus saga in which Oedipus, blind and exiled, (after he had unwittingly killed his father and married his mother) is now an old man looked after by his daughter Antigone. He is taunted by his scheming and feuding sons. The music is majestic, mysterious and troubled, the battle scenes exciting and the more tender material associated with Antigone, captivating. Handley gives it a sizzling reading; but for all its strengths, there are languors, some judicious editing might have helped. Tchaikovsky’s influence is marked.

Full-blooded, romantic readings of more exotic Bantock. For those who have been collecting this marvellous hedonistic Hyperion series, this sixth album will not disappoint.

Ian Lace

 



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