Frederick DELIUS (1862-1934)
A Mass of Life (1904-5) [98:24] *
Prelude and Idyll (1902, 1933) [19:55]
Janice Watson (soprano); Catherine Wyn-Rogers (mezzo)*; Andrew Kennedy (tenor)*; Alan Opie (baritone)
The Bach Choir*; Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/David Hill
rec. The Lighthouse, Poole, Dorset, UK, 26-28 November 2011
NAXOS 8.572861-62 [47:31 + 70:48]
Cards on the table, first off: I admit that I struggle with Delius’ Mass of Life. It has many distinguished advocates, all of whom I respect deeply, who argue that it is one of the great choral works of the 20th Century, but I just don’t hear it. It has wonderful moments, for sure - more of which below - but it also has some wearying longueurs where I wish the music would just hurry up and get on with something … anything! I’m not talking about the moments of intentional stillness, such as the beginning of Part Two: those are wonderful! It’s just that there are times, particularly in the second part, where I can’t help but think that Delius gets caught up in his own philosophical navel-gazing, too overawed by Nietzsche’s ideas to assess them critically or to respond to them with sufficient musical skill.
All that said, this performance has done more than any other I’ve heard to win me over ... somewhat. David Hill brings the score to life in a way that you seldom hear and his performers are fully paid up for the project so that they sing and play with full commitment. The only other readily available recording is by Richard Hickox on Chandos, and it also uses the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, so there are ripe grounds for comparison, though I should say from the off that I think Hill’s is now the better buy.
There are technical reasons for this, most notably the recorded sound which is superb. The Naxos engineers have done a great job of capturing the acoustic of the Lighthouse, picking out each line with more precision than did Chandos, whose wall-of-sound is effective but has a propensity to overwhelm in places. Each line is clearly audible, even the instrumental lines, such as the harps, which could get lost in other contexts, including a live performance. Hill is also blessed with excellent soloists. Alan Opie as Zarathustra is excellent, more declamatory and more arresting than Peter Coleman-Wright, who can sound gravelly on the Chandos recording. Janice Watson and Catherine Wyn-Rogers are also very good, but the one who really comes as balm to the ears is Andrew Kennedy. His gorgeous, honey-sweet tenor is a delight to listen to, leavening the texture every time he appears and quickening the ear whenever he turns up in the big ensembles.
However, the thing that really sets this performance apart is Hill’s conducting. He gets inside the mood of each movement in a way I found even more convincing than Hickox. It’s a commonplace that the opening chorus of each part is full of energy, but Hill elevates that dynamism to a new level. The opening chord of Part One is like the crack of a starting pistol and the whole of that first movement proceeds with such exuberance as to be uplifting and exhilarating, perhaps the place in the work where text and music fit each other most successfully. He captures this effervescent life force beautifully, and he does so even more successfully in the two great dance-songs, which carried me along much more convincingly than did Hickox. The first one is a triumph: it is shaped organically so that it grows naturally out of the opening recitatives and when the fugue arrives on Das ist ein Tanz the whirl of the dance is almost bewildering. This exhilarating sweep carries on into the evening scene of the second part where Zarathustra comes upon the dancing maidens. Here the music carries on its exhilarating sweep, if anything even more so than in the first movement, and Hill builds the multifaceted edifice in a way that even won over a cynic like me.
It is to his credit that he is every bit as successful with the quieter moments. The famous introduction to Part Two, On the Mountains, is spellbindingly played (and recorded), Hill making a virtue out of stillness as the horns call gently to one another, and he is just as fine when capturing the nocturnal mood of the evening scenes. Here the playing of the orchestra comes into its own too, with rich, swelling lower winds and glowing brass underpinned by a swelling bed of support from the strings. It encapsulates very well the mood of longing so intrinsic to Delius at his best and Hill controls it so that it doesn’t sound sentimental but alive. I can’t say the same about all of Part Two - parts of the fourth and fifth movements I find unbearably tedious - but if you want to explore the Mass of Life then this is now the best place to start. It’s better recorded and, on balance, better performed than Hickox’s version for Chandos and it’s also a lot cheaper at Naxos bargain price.
The Prelude and Idyll makes an unusual but effective filler, less substantial than the Requiem which Hickox has for his coupling but satisfying in a different way. The music began life in the opera Margot la Rouge, unperformed in the composer’s lifetime, and towards the end of life, with the help of Eric Fenby, Delius returned to it and extracted this music to create a wholly new work for the concert hall. The prelude has a gently pastoral air to it, while the Idyll is a gently reflective dialogue where two lovers remember their encounter and recall it in idealised language with passionate music to match. It’s sung very well by Opie and Watson, though she is prone to a little shrillness at times.
Simon Thompson
This has done more than any other to win me over to the Mass of Life

see also review by Rob Barnett