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Sir Granville BANTOCK (1868–1946)
Omar Khayyám - The Ruba’iyat according to Edward Fitzgerald set to Music for Three Solo Voices, Chorus, and Orchestra in Three Parts (1906-1909)
Catherine Wyn-Rogers (mezzo) (The Beloved)
Toby Spence (tenor) (The Poet)
Roderick Williams (baritone) (The Philosopher)
Olivia Robinson (soprano) (First Pot)
Siân Menna (mezzo) (Second Pot)
Edward Price (bass) (Sixth Pot)
BBC Symphony Chorus/Stephen Jackson
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Vernon Handley
rec. Watford Colosseum (Town Hall), 1-2 October 2005, 17-18 February 2007
Three CDs for the price of two
This is a hybrid SACD and was played and reviewed in standard CD format.
Full notes in English, German and French. Sung words in English only.
CHANDOS CHSA 5051(3) [3 CDs: 58:14 + 73:08 + 40:09]




In the period 1850-1920 the British music world was not exactly starved of religiously-themed cantatas. They fed the great choral festivals including the Three Choirs. These were respectable provender and were not in short supply. Secular cantatas were another matter altogether. They existed and Parry wrote a few but they were not overflowingly plentiful. Of them Bantock’s pagan Omar was the most ambitious and the most successful in achievement.

Bantock was an eclectic when it came to beliefs. Certainly he wrote works with a Christian reference point but as we know from his daughter Myrrha's biography of her father he immersed himself in other languages and religions and flitted amongst them like an epicurean butterfly. Remember one of the classic photographs of Bantock shows him as Omar Khayyam complete in Arab dress. When he turned to Christian themes and texts it was more often for their exoticism, cruelty and fairytale otherness rather than for devotion.

Omar has been recorded before but only once and only the Prelude and Camel Caravan. That Hyperion recording was made, again by Handley, and has been reissued as part of a Hyperion six-CD Bantock/RPO box (CDS44281/6). It’s still currently available also as a single disc: Hyperion CDA 67250. The wonder is that Frank Mullings or the other singer-luminaries of 1930s and 1940s were not engaged to record just the rapturous Love Duet from Part I or the many other highlights.

The performance history of Omar is not voluminous despite being a work in three separately performable parts, some as short as 40 minutes. The concert history is set out in the notes at the end of this review (if you know of any missing events or errors let me know and we'll add them and make corrections). The forces required are large and by the time he reached the 1940s fashion was beginning to tell against the work. The aging Bantock must have wondered about the future of this massive work.

To the review … It's intriguing that the present Chandos recording was made with the BBCSO. It’s the same orchestra - no doubt with major changes of personnel - who revived the complete Omar in 1979 with Norman Del Mar the year after Bantock's centenary; repeated on Fitzgerald's birthday in 1983. Quite a few people are likely to be familiar with Omar from off-air recordings of those broadcasts.

Bantock's language is sumptuous and lavish but can also be astonishingly delicate and impressionistic. It is sometimes referred to as Straussian. This is misleading as an indication of the soundworld inhabited by this work. Then only relevance is in relation to the massive orchestral specification which also includes camel bells here loaned to the BBCSO by Jonathan Del Mar the son of Norman Del Mar who gave the complete broadcast of Omar in 1979. Bantock, as a product of the Royal Academy, favoured a style which sprang from the wilder ripe romantics. His vocabulary was derived from Rimsky-Korsakov, Tchaikovsky, Borodin and d'Indy. Perhaps he also knew of the similarly inclined Adolph Biarent in Belgium and Arthur Farwell in the USA. There are Sibelian moments too in Omar and in other Bantock works not least the very late Chinese Pictures. Pohjola's Daughter and En Saga (cor anglais and other woodwind) can be heard in the music for The Caravan (tr. 6, CD2). Sibelius dedicated his Third Symphony to Bantock.

His writing for voices is marked out by his willingness to indulge repeating lines or part of lines and by an openness to using lines of voices in way that is not merely contrapuntal but as if he was orchestrating a score. He wrote several purely choral symphonies including Atalanta in Calydon and Vanity of Vanities which have been recorded on Albany; time for a recording of The Pageant of Human Life as well. These choir-only works produce a complex wash of sound in which the words tend to suffer. Compare this with Finzi's style where only rarely are words repeated and where a certain simplicity is to the fore and where the words are dominant. Finzi is not a bad comparison at another level; it's not an unimaginable step from To a Poet a Thousand Years Hence to the poet finding long lost lovers in Bantock’s mute clay and in the effervescence of wine. (CD2 tr. 3 2:00). Finzi in his Hardy song Earth and Air and Rain recalled that the birds around him were, but a year ago, earth and air and rain. If not an exact read-across there's a commonality there – an earthy pantheism.

As for the attraction of the Orient it was widespread at the turn of the century. In Bantock’s case the results were not Brummagem shoddy unlike Ketèlbey's wince-making kitsch but then again neither was it as purist as Holst's Savitri or Foulds' Mirage or World Requiem (soon to be recorded by Chandos) or Delius's Requiem but it was voluptuous, sincere and studied. While many, it seemed, preferred the Christian-devout passion of Elgar and Parry, Bantock certainly touched off other resonances. His realm was that of the secular self-improver, the voracious reader, the luxuriant and philosophical pilgrims and sensuous adventurers of the Edwardian era.

Omar’s musical themes are listed by his friend and secretary H. Orsmond Anderton and by Ernest Newman. They were separately available at the time of the work's publication and later. One among many keeps returning and that is the sorrowing sighing melody that is carried by, and carries, the words Oh what a little time we have. Omar here taps into another theme which has provided sustenance for British composers and others - the transience of beauty and the loss of innocence.

It is worth pointing out that when these words were set and sung in the 1900s they were part of the psychological stock-in-trade of the English-speaking literate masses. The quotations with which the Ruba’iyat is littered were as famous as those of Shakespeare. The book ran into five editions between 1859 and 1889 and each time accrued further quatrains. That final fifth edition in 101 quatrains\ was the one Bantock set about putting to music. Now, not all his projects came to fruition - witness a work setting Robert Southey's Curse of Kehama for chorus and orchestra - in 24 parts. In fact only two orchestral scenes now survive. However in the case of Omar the inspiration came in surging sustained consistency and the composer ended up fulfilling his plan to set all 101 quatrains of a book which in its final edition was only 12-15 years old.

A towering and substantial orchestral prelude encapsulates melancholy, poetry and magnificence. It rises to a lightning strike climax for the flourish of the sun’s first rays expelling the darkness and striking the Sultan’s turret. The listener’s attention having been gripped Bantock rarely lets go across the three hours of this monumental work.

The Tchaikovskian element is pervasive without taking away from Bantock’s characteristic sound. Listen to those signing figures in CD1 tr. 3 at 00.34 ("Before the phantom …"). Then again the "Battered caravanserai" (tr. 12 CD1) carries the mark of Sibelius 1 and Tchaikovsky in the rattlingly abrasive snarl of trombones at the end of that section.

Bantock brilliantly deploys three main characters who appear throughout. The lovers are The Poet and The Beloved. The baritone Philosopher is the protagonist-commentator-hortator and he has the most significant and extended singing role. He also represents something of a sensuous pilgrim who across the three Parts embraces a blasphemously libertine Damascus Road experience from Thinker to Libertine – gradually the Philosopher becomes The Poet. The Philosopher and The Poet/The Beloved can be seen as two facets of Man. Bantock provides all of three with music of almost Puccinian lyric richness but on balance being more lavish with the men than the one woman. Listen to the golden glow around the words sung by the baritone: "… and with my own hand" in "Myself when young …" (tr. 17, CD1). The choir also revels in gorgeously liquidly and fluent writing. Try, in Part 1, "Earth would not answer …" magnificent capped by the music for the words "… nor the seas that mourn in flowing purple."

The Philosopher acts as the vehicle for a real anger about the transitory nature of life. In tr. 18 CD1 The Philosopher figuratively shakes his fist at God although there could in the case of this recording have been more of a snarl by baritone on the word "insolence". Heard in the Del Mar version the rasping curl of the lip is much more apparent. That futile resentment returns later in the work when The Philosopher at the end of Part II addressing "Thou, who Man of baser earth didst make" calls out to the Deity ‘Man’s forgiveness give – – – and take!" preceded by the defiance of the Deity in "The Mighty Mahmud" (tr. 26 CD2) further amplified by the words: "Oh thou who didst with pitfall and with gin ..."

Catherine Wyn-Rogers can be a shade too tremulous by the side of the female soloist in the Del Mar broadcast. Is that throb in the voice inculcated through tuition, I wonder. I am saddened to think that it may have been taught rather than a function of strain or wear and tear. This might be preferred by some over steady vocal production but it’s not a preference I share. It is a pity because Ms Wyn-Rogers sings with evident understanding and emotional engagement.

The quatrains between the end of CD1 and CD 2 are not among Bantock's most inspired but things improve with the imaginative effervescence conjured by the words "Millions of Bubble Like Us" at the end of tr. 3 (CD2). In tr. 4 there is the pained and dry-mouthed sadness in the parting of The Poet and The Beloved: "When you and I behind the veil are past". Their pain can be heard with even greater intensity in the dialogue between Rafi and Pervaneh: Flecker's words and Delius's music in Hassan. Indeed in the Flecker play the voices of the unborn children (the flowers in the garden) after the sadistic death of Rafi and Pervaneh have resonances with Bantock and Fitzgerald's life philosophy in Omar. In 1922 Bantock set Flecker’s The Golden Journey to Samarkand from Hassan; surely another candidate for recording. Speaking of Delius, remember that Bantock premiered Delius's Brigg Fair with the Liverpool Orchestral Society on 18 January 1908. Many of Delius's cues in the Hassan score find their parallels and perhaps some of their stimulus in Omar. The horn calls in tr. 7 of CD2 can be compared with similar dawn fanfares that echo around Delius's and Flecker’s "Baghdad the beautiful".

Quatrains XLIX-LIII on CD 2 provide more morose reflection but the work collects itself for "Waste not your hour" where The Philosopher repenting of years of dusty libraries in the vain activity ("of this and that endeavour and pursuit") enjoins the listener to grasp the moment and immerse themselves in life’s sensuous joys. In real life Bax, Holbrooke and Bantock proved more than happy with being "jocund with the fruitful grape". Handley is towards the end of Part 1 a shade staid by comparison with Del Mar and the music remains richly enjoyable. There's no holding the Philosopher in Part 2 when he divorces "old barren reason" from his bed and takes the daughter of the vine to wife.

The Verdian griping and gripping brass of trs 10 and 11 is also memorable provoking thoughts about Bantock’s sympathy for Tchaikovsky and the inimical Fate that leers and jeers in the Fourth Symphony. The great choral din of "Waste not your Hour" bring Part I to an end but not before some decidedly Lemminkainen-like orchestral shudders.

Part 2 begins in the middle of CD2. After the grim reminders of ‘Time’s wingèd chariot’ that conclude Part 1, its successor celebrates 'the grape'. The BBCSO brass, Handley and Chandos are happy to bray out in tr. 15 "the glories of this world" but there is gentleness too when we get to tr. 18 in the melancholy of "The flower that once has blown for ever dies." Not enough is made of the rhythmic ingenuity and Verdian malevolence of "We are no other a moving row of magic shadow shapes" (tr. 20). And when The Beloved sings: "The moving finger writes …" with all the ecstasy of surrendered resignation the effect is extremely moving. This links with the satisfying remorseless toll and tread of the trio "What out of senseless nothing …"

CD3 is given over to Part 3. The orchestral vorspiel is freighted with regret and marked out again by those horn-calls. The worshippers in the Mosque are towards the end portrayed with yet more of that Tchaikovskian passion. Then the Philosopher launches a sequence of nine quatrains which take the imagery of a store of pots (amphorae) as a metaphor for the sorts and conditions of mankind. This at the same time revels both in the image of the clay to which generations of philosophers, beloveds and poets have returned … and will return and the wine contained in the pots. There are six pots in Bantock’s schema each taken by a different member of the choir although in this case there are only three named. Much play and even some sardonic humour is made of Pot (man) and Potter (God). The Fourth Pot quatrain is piquant with the challenge of "Who is the potter pray … and who the pot." In tr. 6 a sweet solo violin from the leader leads us into a moving little vignette of the pots jogging each other. This escalates from merriment to a wild dervish dance.

In tr. 7 The Philosopher, close to death, repents of the wastrel’s life but it’s a momentary betrayal before the urgency of spring sweeps him back into the sensual whirl. The light jocularity of spring leads to the now equally regretful Beloved and Poet who in a duet of great release echo backwards and forwards cries of "Ah Love!". From this we move again to heartbreaking aspirations to "break this sorry scheme of things entire … would not we shatter it to bits and then remould it nearer to the heart’s desire." Tchaikovskian repetition and development of these words is done with great artistry and adroit emotional effect. Even so Handley is not quite as passionate as Del Mar was in his BBC broadcast.

We are now in what amounts to the work’s epilogue where the orchestral writing invokes the rising moon and the guests star-scattered on the grass. The words ‘star-scattered’ are played out with delicate balletic repetition. Then with prominent parts for a regretful oboe and poetic horn the orchestra sings sweetly into a silvery fading glimmer. Right to the very end themes interweave and strike emotional poetry and sparks of each other; an integral part of the warp and woof of this grandly conceived work.

There is but one area of substantive adverse criticism and this relates to the cuts that have been made. Chandos, a firm of great integrity, to its complete credit, does not hide them; indeed the booklet in addition to including Lewis Foreman’s lucidly readable notes also reproduces every one of the 101 quatrains including those few omitted. But it’s still a real pity. I certainly lament the absence of the slithering and boozily swaying haunted music for "They say the lion and the lizard keep the courts where Jamshyd gloried and drank deep …". Also there is nothing inferior in the whirling dance for orchestra and female voices for "And we that now make merry in the room they left and summer dresses in new bloom ….". Yet it would be churlish to do anything other than recommend strongly this tremendous project.

By now Handley knows the Bantock idiom inside out and the results are not at all disappointing even if Del Mar does score over him at one or two points and plays the score complete. I doubt that anyone in history has conducted as many different Bantock works as Handley and Hyperion’s box of all six of their Bantock series is blessedly timely in coinciding with this new recording.

This is a magnificent project – overall fearless and splendid in its many aspects - planning, documentation, pricing and presentation - 3 CDs each in own sleeve and handsomely illustrated 68 page booklet all in a hard-card wallet. This set opens the door to enjoyment not just appreciation; Bantock demands emotional engagement from his listener. It at last presents to the world one of the living musical treasures of the early twentieth century.
Rob Barnett


 

COMPACT DISC ONE
Part I (beginning)
1 [Prelude –] [5:54]
2 I Chorus: ‘Wake! For the Sun, who scattered into flight’ – [2:08]
3 II Chorus: ‘Before the phantom of false morning died’ – [2:28]
4 III The Poet: ‘And as the cock crew, those who stood before’ – [2:20]
5 IV The Poet: ‘Now the new year reviving old desires’ – [1:45]
6 V The Poet: ‘Iram indeed is gone with all his rose’ – [2:25]
7 VIII Chorus: ‘Whether at Naishápúr or Babylon’ – [2:14]
8 IX The Beloved: ‘Each morn a thousand roses brings, you say’ – [1:34]
9 XI The Poet: ‘With me along the strip of herbage strown’ – [6:49]
10 XIII Chorus: ‘Some for the glories of this world; and some’ – [2:06]
11 XIV The Beloved: ‘Look to the blowing Rose about us – "Lo"’ – [1:32]
12 XVII Chorus: ‘Think, in this battered caravanserai’ – [2:09]
13 XIX The Poet: ‘I sometimes think that never blows so red’ – [1:59]
14 XXI The Poet: ‘Ah, my Beloved, fill the cup that clears’ – [1:55]
15 XXIV Chorus: ‘Ah, make the most of what we yet may spend’ – [2:57]
16 XXV The Beloved: ‘Alike for those who for To-day prepare’ – [2:46]
17 XXVII The Philosopher: ‘Myself when young did eagerly frequent’ – [2:33]
18 XXX Chorus: ‘What, without asking, hither hurried Whence?’ – [1:21]
19 XXXI The Poet: ‘Up from earth’s centre through the seventh gate’ – [2:51]
20 XXXIII Chorus: ‘Earth could not answer; nor the seas that mourn’ – [2:25]
21 XXXIV The Poet: ‘Then of the THEE IN ME who works behind’ – [0:52]
22 XXXV The Poet: ‘Then to the lip of this poor earthern urn’ – [2:34]
23 XXXVI The Philosopher: ‘I think the vessel, that with fugitive’ 2:23]
COMPACT DISC TWO
Part I (conclusion)
1 XL The Beloved: ‘As then the tulip for her morning sup’ – [3:39]
2 XLIII The Beloved: ‘So when that Angel of the darker drink’ – [2:18]
3 XLV Chorus: ‘’Tis but a tent where takes his one day’s rest’ – [2:32]
4 XLVII The Beloved and the Poet: ‘When you and I behind the veil are past’ – [4:01]
5 [Interlude:] The Desert – [1:35]
6 The Caravan – [2:58]
7 XLVIII Chorus: ‘A moment’s halt – a momentary taste’ – [3:35]
8 XLIX The Philosopher: ‘Would you that spangle of Existence spend’ – [2:37]
9 LII The Philosopher: ‘A moment guessed – [then back behind] the fold’ – [2:34]
10 LIV Chorus: ‘Waste not your hour, nor in the vain pursuit’ – [4:09]
11 Chorus: ‘Better be jocund with the fruitful grape’ [2:59]
Part II
12 LV The Philosopher: ‘You know, my Friends, with what a brave carouse’ – [2:11]
13 LVII The Philosopher: ‘Ah, but my computations, people say’ – [1:40]
14 LVIII The Philosopher and Chorus: ‘and ’twas – [the Grape!’ –]
LIX Chorus: ‘The Grape that can with logic absolute’ – [2:42]
15 LX Chorus: ‘The mighty Mahmúd, Allah-breathing Lord’ – [3:38]
16 LXI The Philosopher: ‘Why, be this Juice the growth of God, who dare’ – [1:29]
17 LXII The Philosopher: ‘I must abjure the Balm of Life, I must’ – [1:42]
18 LXIII Chorus: ‘Oh threats of Hell and hopes of Paradise!’ – [3:17]
19 LXV Chorus: ‘The Revelations of devout and learn’d’ – [1:47]
20 LXVIII Chorus: ‘We are no other than a moving row’ – [3:19]
21 LXXI The Beloved: ‘The Moving finger writes; and, having writ’ – [1:41]
22 LXXII The Beloved and the Poet: ‘And that inverted bowl we call the sky’ – [1:36]
23 LXXIII The Poet: ‘With Earth’s first clay they did the last man knead’ – [2:10]
24 LXXV The Philosopher: ‘I tell you this – [when, started from the] goal’ – [3:30]
25 LXXVIII The Beloved, the Poet and the Philosopher:] ‘What! out of senseless Nothing to provoke’ – [4:41]
26 LXXX Chorus, the Beloved, the Poet and the Philosopher: ‘Oh Thou, who didst with pitfall and with gin’ – [1:46]
27 LXXXI Chorus, the Beloved, the Poet and the Philosopher: ‘Oh Thou, who Man of baser earth didst make’ [2:36]
COMPACT DISC THREE
Part III
1 Introduction ‘The Fast of Ramazán’ – [2:47]
2 Worshippers in the Mosque – [4:10]
3 LXXXII The Philosopher: ‘As under cover of departing day’ – [1:00]
4 LXXXIII Chorus: ‘Shapes of all sorts and sizes, great and small’ – [2:07]
5 LXXXIV First Pot: ‘Said one among them – "Surely not in vain"’ – [6:36]
6 XC Chorus: ‘So while the vessels one by one were speaking’ – [1:55]
7 XCI The Philosopher: ‘Ah, with the grape my fading life provide’ – [2:26]
8 XCIII The Philosopher: ‘Indeed the idol I have loved so long’ – [1:48]
9 XCV The Philosopher: ‘And much as wine has play’d the infidel’ – [2:14]
10 XCVI The Poet: ‘Yet ah, that Spring should vanish with the rose!’ – [2:35]
11 XCVII The Poet: ‘Would but the desert of the fountain yield’ – [6:34]
12 C Chorus, the Beloved, the Poet and the Philosopher: ‘Yon rising moon that looks for us again’ – [1:33]
13 CI Chorus, the Beloved, the Poet and the Philosopher: ‘And when like her, oh Sáki, you shall pass’ [4:15]
 

BANTOCK : LIST OF OMAR PERFORMANCES

8 Oct 1909

Omar Khayyam Parts II and III

Birmingham Fest

22 Oct 1909

Omar Khayyam Part I

Newcastle on Tyne

Feb 1910

Omar Khayyam complete

London Ch Soc / Fagge

14 Feb 1912

Omar Khayyam Part I

Vienna - first continental performance / Franz Schalk

1914-1918

revised Omar as Opera Ballet

25 Feb 1918

Desert Scene and Duet - Omar Khayyam

Edna Thornton / Bessie Tyas / Frank Mullings / Norman Allin / Beecham National Opera Chorus / RPO / Beecham, QH

13 Mar 1918

Ballet of the Pots

FP

1 Dec 1921

Omar Khayyam

Manchester / Harty

31 Jan 1924

Omar Khayyam Parts II & III

Manchester / Harty

10 Mar 1925

Omar Khayyam cpte

Liverpool Phil Soc

21 Apr 1926

Omar Khayyam complete

Fagge

19 Mar 1930

Omar Khayyam Part I

Dorothy Dorsay / Stuart Wilson / Roy Henderson / CBO / Boult, Birmingham

27 November 1968 (Bantock centenary year)

Part III only BBCSO/Del Mar, Pamela Bowden, Alexander Young, John Noble, first broadcast performance

5-6 Jan 1979 – repeated 1983

Complete BBCSO/Del Mar, Sarah Walker, Anthony Rolfe Johnson, Brian Rayner Cook



 


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