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

This is the first time to my knowledge that these works have been paired together on disc. It’s such an intriguing idea that I’m surprised nobody has done so until now. Both works represent their respective composers’ heartfelt response to the horrors of warfare. Morning Heroes written as an act of personal catharsis following the death of Bliss’s brother in the trenches, the War Requiem a less immediately personal but no less genuine reaction on the part of its famously pacifist composer.
Bliss himself saw active service in the trenches during the Great War, being wounded on the Somme and gassed at Cambrai. These experiences, together with the loss of his brother, resurfaced some ten years later when Bliss began to suffer recurring nightmares. It was ostensibly as a memorial to his brother but also to exorcise his own demons that Bliss began to write his large-scale choral symphony, Morning Heroes.
Morning Heroes foreshadows works by Britten such as the Spring Symphony or Nocturne in its use of a collection of poems by different authors responding to a common theme; in this case the impact of war on all that it touches, from the soldier to his nearest and dearest. The work is scored for narrator, chorus and orchestra and contrasts poems dealing with both the “public” face of war (Whitman’s The City Arming) to its effect on individuals (passages from Homer’s Iliad and Li-Tai Po). Finally, two First World War poems by Wilfred Owen and Robert Nichols paradoxically lend both particularity and universality to the work. At no point do we feel that Bliss is preaching any kind of anti-war polemic; war is seen as a necessary evil. Bliss takes as his theme the acts of collective and personal heroism that war engenders.
Sir Charles Groves performed Morning Heroes several times in his career, for instance at the 1971 Cheltenham Festival in honour of the composer’s 80th birthday, and at a 1982 studio performance once available on BBC Radio Classics. His 1974 recording reissued here was once issued on an earlier British Composers CD incarnation but that has long been unavailable.  John Westbrook is clearly involved as the narrator, and all forces show tremendous dedication in their performance.
Those familiar with the piece will not need to be reminded of its virtues; if you’ve never heard it before, do try to get hold of these CDs. Morning Heroes is an inspired, deeply-felt and memorable work.
It’s something of a sobering thought that it’s now almost a quarter of a century since Simon Rattle’s recording of Britten’s War Requiem first appeared. At the time it was the first widely available version to challenge the composer’s own 1963 recording. Rattle performed a lot of Britten’s music at this stage in his career – as the excellent booklet notes tell us these forces had given a performance of the War Requiem immediately before recording the work. He and his performers were fully attuned to the piece.
Now that we have had recorded versions of the War Requiem from conductors such as Robert Shaw, Richard Hickox, and Kurt Masur – not to mention Giulini with the composer himself on BBC Legends – the Rattle finds itself in a much more competitive marketplace. I had not listened to his recording for many years so was interested to find out how the performance measured up.
On sonic grounds the work is given a wide ranging recording set in an atmospheric acoustic. The producers have been careful to maintain the aural perspectives required for the three levels or strata of the music – the distant boys choir, the full orchestra, chorus and soprano soloist and the tenor and baritone soloists with chamber orchestra in the foreground. Sometimes this can give a rather unrealistic sound-picture. To get an acceptable impact from the full forces you have to turn the sound up several notches, only to be blasted out of your seat by Robert Tear’s first entry! However, after a while, the ear soon adjusts.
Simon Rattle takes an intensely dramatic view of the score, with powerful brass, prominent timpani and an unerring sense of pace and tempi. One of the great strengths of the performance lies in the committed singing of the CBSO Chorus, bitingly dramatic and enunciating their text with unusual clarity. It is a pity that the somewhat recessed recording rather blunts the potential impact of their singing. The Boys of Christ Church Cathedral sing with similarly clear diction – Britten once advised a boys’ choir to sing their words “as though they were biting an apple” – and the Oxford choristers appear to have taken this advice to heart.
Rattle’s soloists are a good team, very different from Britten’s but valid in their own way. Elisabeth Söderström sang a fair amount of Britten’s music during her career; she appeared as the Governess is one of the early Swedish performances of The Turn of the Screw and later performed Our Hunting Fathers in the composer’s presence at Aldeburgh (subsequently recording that work for EMI). Like Heather Harper she does not really have the kind of dramatic voice that Britten imagined in the part but she compensates for this with singing of great beauty and sensitivity in the more lyrical sections, and projects her line effectively enough in the more declamatory passages.
By the time he came to make the recording Robert Tear had been singing the work for many years, and this is demonstrated in his awareness of the text and in the considered inflections he gives all aspects of the music. Tear was greatly influenced early in his career by Britten, Pears and the Aldeburgh circle, and if in later years he distanced himself from that tradition he gives a dedicated performance of the tenor part. His is a more robust approach than that of Pears and occasionally he misses some of his older colleague’s sensitivity to dynamics and wholehearted involvement in the music.
Thomas Allen sings superbly throughout and rather steals a march on Fischer-Dieskau in his perceptive delivery of the text and his identification with the music. His is a more lyrical approach than that of F-D or John Shirley-Quirk, summoning both deadened tone and biting irony in “After the blast of lightning” and eloquently conveying broken resignation in “Strange Meeting”. A very fine performance indeed.
Britten’s own recording is a priceless historical document and has been remastered and reissued several times in the intervening years so that the limitations of the 1960s recording are not as immediately obvious. The CDs also come with a secretly recorded rehearsal sequence giving us an invaluable glimpse of the composer as interpreter.  In addition we have the benefit of hearing the three performers – Vishnevskaya, Pears and Fischer-Dieskau – for whom Britten conceived the work, symbolising reconciliation between Russian, British and German forces.
Rattle’s performance gives us a fascinating view of a masterpiece – we feel that he has approached the music afresh on its own terms, without being influenced by tradition. He has the advantage, as Britten did not, of a choir and orchestra with the music in their blood, so there need be no concerns on grounds of musical accuracy. His pacing of the work overall is masterly in his projection of the overall structure; the drama of earlier parts of the score such as the Dies Irae is not allowed to overshadow the final cataclysmic climax in the Libera Me, which is devastating in its power. In the Owen setting, “Strange Meeting” which follows is sung with great concentration by both Tear and Allen, emphasising as Britten intended the personal cost of conflict and its futility.  If the final In Paradisum does not come as the overwhelming peroration that it can do in some performances, Rattle appears to be aware that not all the questions have been answered, and the final F major chorus brings a sense of unease, a lack of resolution, that is not inappropriate.
Ewan McCormick

see also review by Rob Barnett

EMI British Composers page



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