To celebrate the dedication of Coventry Cathedral in May 1962 the city staged a substantial arts festival. The musical side featured three substantial premières by leading British composers. Michael Tippett’s opera King Priam
was one of the new works: the others were The Beatitudes
by Bliss and Britten’s War Requiem
. Recordings of the broadcast premières of the latter two works have just been issued. In some ways it’s a pity that these recordings weren’t issued in 2012 when the cathedral was celebrating its fiftieth anniversary. Still, I can understand that the centenary of Britten’s birth was probably felt to be the time at which to issue the War Requiem
recording. The appearance both of this and of the first commercial recording of The Beatitudes
is greatly to be welcomed.
Much has been written about the treatment meted out to Sir Arthur Bliss who expected his cantata to be heard for the first time in the new cathedral. Indeed, he scored the work in the expectation that the cathedral’s mighty new Harrison and Harrison organ would be involved. However, the first performance took place in the much less suitable Coventry Theatre. The theatre’s stage was so cramped that, apparently, some of the choir were unable to see the conductor and there was no organ; a small electronic organ was brought in but was completely inadequate. More information about the Bliss first performance, including extracts from contemporary press reviews, can be read here
The concert was broadcast in full on the BBC Home Service. I didn’t know that a recording still existed of the first performance of The Beatitudes
but here it is, now restored by Dutton and available commercially, I think, for the first time. I’m not going to discuss the music itself here: for that may I direct readers to the piece I wrote, previewing
the September 2012 performance in Coventry Cathedral?
I’ve listened to The Beatitudes
quite a bit over the last year or so. In preparation for the very fine 2012 Coventry performance conducted by Paul Daniel (review
) I had access to an off-air recording of a 1991 London performance conducted by Sir David Willcocks. I’ve also listened several times to the recording I made when the 2012 performance was broadcast on BBC Radio 3. By the side of these two readings the 1962 première has several drawbacks. As Bliss intended, the Coventry Cathedral organ is a telling presence in the 2012 performance - as is the Royal Festival Hall instrument in the Willcocks performance. The electronic organ imported into the Coventry Theatre in 1962 is inaudible. The Coventry Festival Chorus makes an often-valiant effort for the composer but by comparison with the Bach Choir (Willcocks) and the Sheffield Philharmonic Choir (Daniel) their singing lacks incisiveness and there are several occasions when the tuning, especially that of the sopranos, is wayward. The BBC Symphony Orchestra’s playing is quite good but the LPO (Willcocks) and the BBC Philharmonic (Daniel) are much superior. However, I think one should cut the Coventry choir some slack. This was an ad hoc
body assembled from, I think, nine choral societies located within the Anglican Diocese of Coventry. They were expected to learn from scratch two demanding brand-new scores: the Bliss and the Britten War Requiem
; a daunting assignment. Furthermore, it’s clear from Sir Arthur’s contemporary comments that during this performance the singers were crammed onto an unsuitable stage; some of them couldn’t even see him and I should think that it was difficult for them to hear other parts as well. In the circumstances I think they do pretty well and one mustn’t forget that the standards of amateur choral singing - and of professional orchestral playing - have risen dramatically in the last fifty years.
To set against the shortcomings of the performance there are some definite plus points. Sir Arthur had two very fine soloists in Jennifer Vyvyan and Richard Lewis. Both do very well indeed and are fully a match for their rivals in the other two performances. I particularly admired the singing of Jennifer Vyvyan, who makes a radiant contribution to the setting of Herbert’s ‘I got me flowers’ and is very eloquent when singing the Third Beatitude, ‘Blessed are the meek’. Lewis also makes a fine contribution - and just five nights later he went on to create the role of Achilles in the first performance of King Priam
. The other important feature of this performance is the conducting of Sir Arthur. His other recordings, some of which are gathered together in this Dutton set, have shown him to be a most effective interpreter of his own music and that’s most certainly the case here. He wasn’t originally scheduled to conduct - Sargent was to have been on the rostrum - but, despite the difficult performing conditions he gets a committed performance out of his forces. Several sections of the work consist of energetic, dynamic music and those passages are well brought off here while Bliss also ensures that the lyrical episodes are given their full value.
As to the recorded sound, I had no great expectations based on what I’ve read about the venue for the performance. It’s true that the sound lacks any depth or real warmth and the music can sound strident at times. However, the BBC engineers did a remarkably good job in the circumstances and though the sound is often congested in the louder passages - of which there are quite a few - I was pleasantly surprised at how much detail comes across and the soloists are very well reported.
Dutton has issued the performances of A Colour Symphony
and the Introduction and Allegro
before. I haven’t heard that disc but I presume the same transfers have been used here. The recordings have very recently resurfaced on another label and I’d agree with John Whitmore’s verdict on both the music and the performances (review
). The same label, Heritage, has also just issued the Bliss recording of Things to Come
; It must be the same recording though Dutton date the sessions as 1957 whereas, to judge by John Whitmore’s review
, Heritage give the date as 1959.
I’ve heard several modern recordings of A Colour Symphony
including those by Sir Charles Groves - the first one I ever owned, on LP (review
) - Barry Wordsworth (review
), Vernon Handley and David Lloyd-Jones. However, I think the composer’s own reading is as good as any. He gets some splendid and spirited playing from the LSO in what is the finest performance - and the finest music - in this set. From the same 1955 sessions comes the Introduction and Allegro
. Unlike Elgar’s similarly-named piece, this is for full orchestra. It’s strong music and it’s powerfully projected by the LSO under Bliss’s clearly dynamic baton.
is a fresh and engaging composition. It’s well done here though the diction of the BBC Chorus is poor - some of the words are unintelligible - and when you can hear what they’re singing they sometimes sound ‘posh’. Yet they do some good things too, not least singing with sensitivity in a pleasing account of the final movement. Nancy Evans is only employed in one movement, ‘The Pigeon Song’, which is a pity since her singing in that movement is excellent. Flautist Gareth Morris has much more to do and his playing is a constant source of delight. Reginald Jacques conducts sympathetically. We’re back to the composer for the suite from his music for the film Things to Come
. Understandably, this striking score contains some of his best-known music and in this stereo recording Bliss leads an excellent performance. I particularly enjoyed the deft account of ‘Ballet’ and the noble reading of ‘Reconstruction’, which avoids any undue sentimentality. The famous March has swagger. Finally, a real rarity completes this set in the form of a recording by Constant Lambert of a march that Bliss wrote to celebrate the Liberation of France in 1944. It was first performed the following year, conducted by no less than Charles Munch. It’s interesting but no disinterred masterpiece.
Mention of masterpieces, however, brings us to the Testament issue of the first performance of War Requiem
given in Coventry Cathedral six days after the Bliss première. Like the recording of The Beatitudes
, this was a recording I never expected to hear.
Like the performance of the Bliss it has drawbacks and, once again, these largely concern the choir and orchestra. After the performance Britten described the chorus - the same singers who had performed the Bliss - as ‘deplorable’. I think, perhaps, that was a little unfair but there’s no doubt at all that the chorus lacked both polish and confidence. In his valuable book, The Idea was Good
), Michael Foster describes in some detail how the chorus was prepared for the first performance, including - as a desperate measure - the importation of 16 members of the professional Ambrosian Singers. Following in the score one can easily spot a number of fluffed entries and other incidences of imprecision. The biggest drawback, it seems to me, is the fact that the choir never achieves anything like a soft dynamic. So the opening mutterings of ‘Requiem’ are all too present and the hushed music for the Kyrie, which also ends the Dies Irae and the entire work lacks any real sense of mystery - part of the trouble is that in those three passages, and a few others, Meredith Davies adopts too swift and therefore too prosaic a tempo.
Britten also described the CBSO as ‘second-rate’. As I’ve already said, performance standards have risen amazingly in the last fifty years and the CBSO of 1962 are nowhere near as fine an ensemble as their successors who, in 2012, gave such a stunning account of the work in the same building (review
). For the most part the playing is satisfactory but it lacks the polish and the incisiveness that we’re so used to hearing these days - and which the LSO brought to Britten’s famous Decca recording in the following year. There are a few fluffs, the most glaring of which occurs in the bass solo, ‘Be slowly lifted up’. The orchestra’s trumpets have a series of interjections during this solo. The first of these, at 5 bars after cue 49 (track 8, 0:12), is missed entirely and is then played when the second
interjection should occur. Thereafter each interjection is one late and it’s miraculous that the whole thing doesn’t fall apart, especially when chorus and orchestra are, effectively, relying on the last of these trumpet contributions to get them all back in for the reprise of ‘Dies irae’.
But, just as with the performance of The Beatitudes
, there are compensations for these shortcomings. The boys’ choir is excellent; they sing confidently and accurately. Equally excellent are the members of the Melos Ensemble who are at all times incisive, supporting the male soloists splendidly and realising Britten’s piquant scoring admirably. As for the soloists, I must mention Heather Harper first of all. Famously drafted in at just 10 days’ notice to replace Galina Vishnevskaya, she gives an amazing performance. So assured is her singing that one would think she’d been preparing for months. To be honest, I’ve never been entirely comfortable with Vishnevskaya’s contribution to the Decca recording. Hearing Heather Harper now I so
wish she’d been retained for that assignment. We have her in the Hickox studio recording, of course,, though that was made quite some years later, and also in a live Ansermet recording from 1967 (review
) but it’s marvellous to hear what she brought to the unveiling of the work.
The performances of Pears and Fischer-Dieskau are familiar from the Decca recording - or are they? Of course, their interpretations of their respective parts were broadly similar when they took the piece into the studio but here there are many nuances that are different. And above all there’s an intensity that the studio recording, perhaps inevitably, didn’t recapture. Famously, Fischer-Dieskau was so overwhelmed at the end of the Coventry performance that Pears had to help him from his place. I’m not surprised. Listen, for example, to his amazing account of ‘After the blast of lightening’, full of detail and expression. And though both soloists are wonderfully eloquent in ‘Strange meeting’ the German baritone really confronts
the listener with his devastatingly moving singing. Pears is equally excellent. Somehow, I felt that in the Agnus Dei movement he brought Owen’s words to life in a way I’ve not experienced before and hearing him sing these words brought to my mind a recollection of some of those grainy black and white images one has seen of the World War I conflict.
As with the Bliss recording there are sonic considerations. I mentioned earlier that the choir never really achieves a soft dynamic. To be fair to them I suspect that part of the problem lay in the placing of the BBC microphones; the music can often sound close-up. In the ‘Libera me’ the dread, spectral march isn’t soft enough at the start - and Meredith Davies paces it a bit too swiftly, I feel - but from the soprano soloist’s entry at ‘Tremens factus sum’ (track 17, from 3:40) the sound becomes quite congested and that remains the case for the remainder of that track - in other words, up to the start of ‘Strange meeting’. Again, towards the end of the work (track 19 from 1:33) during the concluding ensemble the sound is quite compressed, though one can hear the three soloists and the boys’ choir well enough.
However, I mention these questions of the recorded sound only in the interests of thoroughness. Don’t let any reservations over the sound quality deter you from acquiring this disc. Given that they were working in a new, unfamiliar and challenging acoustic and trying to capture a large and complex ensemble, the BBC engineers did a very creditable job, I think. One wonders if the sound would have been any better had the performers been placed at the West End of the nave - as was the case for the CBSO's 50th
anniversary performance. I suspect, however, that such an arrangement was impractical for various reasons but it can’t have been easy for several hundred performers to cram into the quire and high altar space of the cathedral.
Paul Baily (Britten) and Michael Dutton (Bliss) have done wonders in re-mastering these 1962 recordings for CD and Michael Dutton’s transfers of the studio recordings of the other Bliss recordings are all excellent. Both sets come with good notes - Lewis Foreman for Dutton and Britten biographer Paul Kildea for Testament. Neither issue offers texts though the text of War Requiem
is available as a PDF download from the Testament website.
Both of these issues are self-recommending. The Bliss set will be snapped up, I’m sure, by admirers of this fine and unjustly neglected composer in the absence of a modern recording of The Beatitudes
. However, this 1962 recording is more than a mere stopgap. Despite the less-than-perfect performance and sound it’s a very valuable addition to the Bliss discography and will remain so even if we ever get a long-overdue modern recording. As I wrote, summing up my review of the 2012 Coventry performance I don’t think the work is a neglected masterpiece but I do admire the work very much and I believe it’s a piece of no little stature. I was struck by a comment made by Sir Peter Maxwell Davies in the programme for that concert. He wrote: “The anguished orchestral prelude that depicts ‘A troubled world’ seems perhaps even more relevant now than it was in 1962, as does the message of the Beatitudes.’ Surely that is just one reason why we should hear the work more often.
As for War Requiem
, its reputation is secure. Indeed, just in the last couple of months I’ve reviewed no less than four recordings of it - by Paul McCreesh
, Sir Antonio Pappano
, Mariss Jansons
and Karel Ančerl
- all of them new to the catalogue and all with something to say about the piece. This one is different, however, and, despite the shortcomings, it’s an essential
part of the discography of the work. We can’t hope to replicate at home the frisson and atmosphere that there must have been in Coventry Cathedral on the night of 30 May 1962 but this important and genuinely historic issue by Testament takes us a lot closer than we’ve ever been to the forging of this masterpiece.
Masterwork Index: Britten War requiem