Frederick DELIUS (1862-1934)
A Mass of Life (1899, 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
Sung texts and translations included
NAXOS 8.572861-62 [47:31 + 70:48]
Delius’ Idyll is one of the late works the composer created with Eric Fenby. The original material came from the unperformed 1902 opera Margot le Rouge. Delius and Fenby substantially reworked the Margot music and set it for soprano, baritone and orchestra to Whitman’s poem Once I passed through a populous city. Later Delius agreed to the performance of the original Margot prelude with the Idyll, although the verismo qualities of the former do not accord well with late Delius. I have always found the Idyll among the most stirring of the late works, although it can break down in the middle - cf. Meredith Davies’ 1968 EMI recording. David Hill here avoids this problem and his pacing combined with Janice Watson’s rapt interpretation of the soprano part make for something very compelling. [Felicity Lott and Thomas Allen on Heritage also offer a most satisfying alternative (review). Ed.]
Delius always admired Nietzsche and this shows most strongly in A Mass of Life, the largest of his non-operatic works. It was mostly written in 1904-05, but much of the last section dates from a separate work first performed in 1899. Although scored for oratorio-like forces the work is actually a well-organized series of scenes from Nietzsche’s long poem Also Sprach Zarathustra, with the baritone soloist taking the role of Zarathustra and the chorus and other soloists sometimes portraying characters from the poem and sometimes commenting on the action. Some of these same words were set by Mahler in his Third Symphony.
The opening chorus of A Mass of Life has to be one of the thrilling moments in all Delius. The middle sections of Part 1 (tracks 3 and 4 of CD 1) with their dialogues between baritone and chorus are deeply moving in their emotional variety. Delius is even more inspired in the music that follows, leading to the shattering finale to Part 1. In Part 2 there is much beautiful writing for the orchestra, but perhaps the highpoint is the ensemble writing for soloists and chorus in Track 7 of CD 1 Herauf nun herauf and the solos in the Noon day section (Track 2 of CD 2).
Alan Opie is somewhat variable in terms of vocal strength and expressiveness, but frequently is very impressive, especially in O Meine neuen Freunde (Part 1, Track 3), the soliloquy Susse Leier! in Part 2 (Track 8 of CD 1) and in O Mensch Gib Acht and the last part of the work. Janice Watson is the most convincing of the soloists. Her voice is well-suited to Delius and she shows the same aptitude for his music that she did in the Idyll. Catherine Wyn-Jones was not in her best voice when making this recording, but this does not stop her from being very moving in O Zarathustra in track four of Part 1. Andrew Kennedy is especially good in blending with the other soloists. David Hill is the director of the Bach Choir and gets wonderful results from them in the several wordless choruses, although they are occasionally shrill in other parts.
As well as the Bach Choir, David Hill also has a long history with the Bournemouth Symphony their connection is quite palpable in this recording. This, combined with Hill’s excellent “Delius phrasing” would guarantee a fine performance, but it is Hill’s overall conception, obviously much thought over, that is most impressive. When combined with the excellent acoustics of The Lighthouse and engineering to match from Mike Clements we have a splendid rendition of A Mass of Life.
The standard for recorded performance of this work remains the Beecham version (review review review) but in terms of more recent recordings, the soloists in Richard Hickox’s 1996 version (Chandos CHAN9515) may be somewhat finer and Charles Groves may have more warmth in his 1972 EMI performance (review review), but Hill’s new recording is in no way inferior to these others and benefits from the fine sound.
William Kreindler 

see also reviews by Rob Barnett and Simon Thompson

A stirring and excellently recorded version of Delius’ choral masterwork. Fine singing by the Bach Choir and a stand-out reading by David Hill. 
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