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Arthur BLISS (1891-1975)
Morning Heroes – A symphony for orator, chorus and orchestra (1930) [59:33]
Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
War Requiem op. 66 (1961) [83:25]
John Westbrook (orator); Liverpool Philharmonic Choir
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Charles Groves (Morning Heroes)
Elisabeth Söderström (soprano); Robert Tear (tenor); Thomas Allen (baritone); Boys of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford; CBSO Chorus
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/Simon Rattle (War Requiem)
rec. Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool, 23-24 July 1974 (Bliss); Great Hall, University of Birmingham, 27 February, 1, 4 March 1983. DDD (Britten); ADD (Bliss)
EMI CLASSICS BRITISH COMPOSERS 5059092 [69:37 + 73:30]

 


Four volumes in the EMI British Composers series were issued this month (November 2007) all themed around war and remembrance. This two disc set features two works linked by war and by Wilfred Owen. The Bliss relates to the Great War and the Britten to the Second World War although it has Great war references as well. Bliss saw frontline action in that war; Britten did not. Both men lived through the war that gave birth to these works so in that sense they speak of the marks left by their respective conflicts. Bliss lived through the Second World War as well but that war did not draw any second work from him. The only relevant link between Britten’s War Requiem and Bliss is that the Coventry Festival for which the Requiem was written also saw the premiere of another major work by Bliss: his The Beatitudes. Despite its inherent attractions the Britten Requiem rather eclipsed Bliss’s work which most regrettably has been little heard since and still awaits recording.

When the Rattle version of the War Requiem came out in 1986 it had all the benefits of digital technology but faced the composer’s own masterly Decca recording which sounds good to this day. It was only the second recording of the War Requiem, the oxygen of competition having been sucked out by the all-conquering Decca box. In fact it remains a viable alternative with two British male singers alongside the Swedish Söderström. There was an undeniable spiritual symbolism in the Decca line-up: a Briton, a Russian and a German. Vishnevskaya however tended to be unyielding. Söderström was better at projecting humanity. The sound of Peter Pears’ quavering tenor is an acquired taste although in this case the bray remains low-key. I never acquired the taste for his voice although I recognise I am in the minority here. I am delighted to have Robert Tear in his place and Thomas Allen instead of the original DF-D. It is a really good digital recording and performance but it still struggles against the Decca original.

The Bliss comes first in this two CD slimline-set. It’s on the first CD together with the Requiem Aeternam section of the War Requiem with the rest of the Britten following on CD2. The Bliss is an unequivocal and deeply-felt work. It adopts the anthologising format, drawing on words and poetry across the centuries. The dedication is to the memory of Francis Kennard Bliss – Bliss’s brother - who was killed in action. There are five movements across eight tracks in this unusually scored work. The touching music for Hector’s Farewell to Andromache is deft, lissom and feline and the heroic yet not unduly stagey voice of the actor John Westbrook (1922-1989) is memorable. Westbrook worked mainly in the theatre but his most famous role was in Roger Corman's Poe film The Tomb of Ligeia. His voice is well-tempered and the hoarse outbursts register with such force because of his reserve and his careful weighting of words and dynamics. Listen to him in that first movement when he calls out, hoarse with outrage and anger, to “Zeus and all ye gods ...” His skill as an actor also provides awesome colouring to the words “… and may he bring with him bloodstained spoils …” That impulse can be felt again in the words: “Pre-eminent among the Trojans!”. The Whitman setting of The City Arming is majestic, bustling and thronged and with the big sound of the Liverpool Philharmonic Choir put across with great power. There are some moments of respite but what lingers in the memory is potency of activity veering on hysteria which Bliss drew on again for the city air-raid scenes in Things To Come. This compares with the smooth, steadier, resolved tone of the choir in the movement: By the bivouac’s fitful flame. The awestruck grunt and groan of the brass in Achilles goes to battle is just as memorable as the ‘roll call’ of bloodied heroes blasted out in golden choral tone. Then we return to Westbrook’s extraordinary oratory in Wilfred Owen’s ‘Spring Offensive’ first lulling and then explosive as the khaki lines rush out into the exposed field of fire. The word ‘Exposed!’ comes as an almost physical blow. Then after the ravages of shrapnel and bullet given striking emphasis by the timpani Westbrook finds a different – even sentimental - cadence for the words: “Some say God caught them even before they fell.” Is it sentimentality or did Owen intend a sardonic edge. More convincingly emotional are the desperately moving words “Why speak they not of comrades that went under?” The final movement is a choral setting of Robert Nichols’ poem “Dawn on the Somme”. Finally the choir sings of “Th’ invincible sun” and of the “Morning Heroes”. The horns then bellow in protest and those remorseless drums return.

This version of Morning Heroes faces some competition. The only one currently available is from 1992 on Cala CACD 1010 with Brian Blessed as orator and Michael Kibblewhite conducting various London choirs and the LPO. This was recorded on 16-17 November 1991 and 26 January 1992 at All Hallows Church, Gospel Oak. Blessed throws himself into the oration with an abandon which Westbrook’s great classical restraint throws into sharp relief. If you prefer a more overtly emotional delivery then go for the Cala. The other version has been deleted for quite some time. It’s on BBC Radio classics 15656 91992 issued in 1997 but presenting a BBC studio tape from the Maida Vale Studios, London on 12 August 1982. It’s by Richard Baker (orator), the BBC Symphony Orchestra, BBC Symphony Chorus and Charles Groves. This strikes a path between the two versions but for my taste it’s the Westbrook that carries the day.

There are no texts provided for either the Bliss or the Britten though the notes are full and extremely helpful. No, if you want the words you must track these down over the internet. I tried in vain.

For me this slimline 2CD set is invaluable for the Bliss which has only once previously been issued on CD and that was in 1991 on CDM7 63906-2. It soon disappeared. You would do well to track this set down before it too disappears from the scene.

Rob Barnett

 

 


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