RECORDING OF THE MONTH
Sir Arthur BLISS (1891-1975)
Morning Heroes, F 32 (1930) [55:33]
Hymn to Apollo, F 116 (1926) (original version. first recording) [9:26]
Samuel West (orator)
BBC Symphony Chorus
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Sir Andrew Davis
rec. 16-17 May 2015, Fairfield Halls, Croydon
CHANDOS CHSA 5159 SACD [65:12]
It’s very fitting that during the four-year period when we continue to commemorate the centenary of World War I there should be a new and long overdue recording of Morning Heroes. Sir Arthur Bliss volunteered for the army in August 1914 and he served with distinction in the trenches in war-time France. He was wounded at the Battle of the Somme in 1916 and in 1918 he was gassed at Cambrai. All this, and the carnage he witnessed all around him, made an ineradicable impression on him. However the most grievous blow was the loss of his younger brother, Kennard, who was killed in action on 28 September 1916 at Thiepval; he was just 24. After the war was over Bliss returned to France to find his brother’s grave but this pilgrimage failed to lay Kennard's ghost. In his notes for the earlier recording of Morning Heroes by Sir Charles Groves, Felix Aprahamian writes that Bliss began to suffer from nightmares in 1928; these must have been a manifestation of the psychological effects of the war. Finally, the opportunity came to commemorate his brother with a commission for a major choral work for the 1930 Norwich Festival. The result was Morning Heroes, scored for orator, chorus and orchestra. Bliss himself conducted the first performance. The score is dedicated ‘To the memory of my brother Francis Kennard Bliss and all other comrades killed in battle.’
Morning Heroes is an ambitious score and its construction is rather unusual in that two of its five movements are for orator with orchestra – though, as we shall see, the accompaniment in the second spoken movement is sparse indeed. A choral finale follows the second spoken section; together these two sections constitute the fifth movement. In the centre of the work are three movements for chorus and orchestra. Bliss assembled an anthology of texts; his sources include Homer’s epic Greek poem, The Iliad; Whitman’s Drum Taps; the eighth century Chinese poet, Li Tai Po; and poems by two twentieth century poets, Wilfred Owen and Robert Nichols.
Live performances of Morning Heroes are quite rare. It was only this year that I experienced the work live for the first time after nearly five decades of concert-going when I attended a concert conducted by Sir Andrew Davis, at the Three Choirs Festival (review). However, it has fared slightly better in the recording studio; this is its fourth recording. The first was made by Sir Charles Groves for EMI in 1974. That’s now available either coupled with Simon Rattle’s recording of War Requiem – a perceptive pairing (review) - or as part of a recently-issued box set of Groves’s recordings from Warner Classics (review). Groves returned to the work again in 1985 and his broadcast with the same chorus and orchestra and with Richard Baker as the orator was issued as BBC Radio Classics 15656 9199-2 (deleted). There was also a 1991 recording conducted by Michael Kibblewhite (re view). That’s a very good performance, preferable in some ways to Groves. However, Kibblewhite’s narrator is Brian Blessed and while he recites much of his part intelligently there are two occasions, one in each oration, where I think he goes way over the top. For that reason, and with some reluctance, I would not make the Kibblewhite version a library choice. In any case, I’m unsure how widely available it is these days, though it is currently listed on Amazon.
This new Chandos recording was set down over a two day period immediately following a concert performance in London which impressed my Seen & Heard colleague, Alan Sanders (review). I approached it with some confidence, based partly on Alan’s experience and also because it had been evident to me in the Three Choirs Festival performance that Sir Andrew Davis conducts it with complete conviction. I had hoped to get a preview of Samuel West in the crucial role of the orator since he had been due to take part in the Three Choirs performance. However, to my great disappointment, he was obliged to withdraw – his replacement, Malcolm Sinclair, was excellent.
In the first movement the orator recites ‘Hector’s farewell to Andromache’ from The Iliad. Bliss chose these words discerningly for they illustrate well the concept of noble self-sacrifice, if need be, in war. The orchestral accompaniment is marvellous, colouring and commenting on the spoken text most perceptively. There’s quite a contrast between West and Groves’ orator, John Westbrook (1922-1989). To be honest, I was astonished when I looked up Westbrook’s dates just now. He would have been 51 when he recorded the work with Groves in June 1974 whereas West was a few weeks short of his 49th birthday when the Chandos sessions took place. Yet Westbrook sounds quite a bit older than West. His delivery is more measured than West’s – his first movement speech lasts for about a minute longer – and it’s also more patrician in tone. I like Westbrook’s way with the text and the patrician approach seems suitable given the antiquity of Homer’s words. There are also one or two occasions when he makes rather more of the words than does West. A prime example is Hector’s invocation “O Zeus and all ye gods”, which Westbrook declaims dramatically yet without being excessive in the way that Brian Blessed is but West’s more relaxed and more modern style is also extremely convincing. At all times he‘s clear in his diction and intelligent in the way he inflects the words. His contribution is wholly successful.
The next movement, ‘The City Arming’ sets a substantial excerpt from Whitman’s Drum Taps. Andrew Burn says in his notes that these lines were the closest that Bliss could get to finding words that expressed the mood in Britain in the summer of 1914. Then there was a heady – and, as it transpired, rather naïve - rush to the colours. Whitman’s words articulate the bustle and clamour of civilians preparing for war, some to man the home front but many to head for the action. Bliss’s often-teeming music conveys the pre-war frenzy with great energy. The BBC Symphony Chorus are splendid here, singing with great conviction and incisiveness – and it must be said that these words of Whitman don’t always readily lend themselves to musical setting. The music in this movement is exciting if not always ingratiating; Davis leads a gripping performance.
The third movement consists first of lines by Li Tai Po, sung by the female voices. This section poignantly illustrates the concern of the womenfolk left at home while their men go off to fight. The choir is excellent here and the BBC Symphony Orchestra plays Bliss’s delicate writing with great finesse. The men, representing the soldiers at the front, take over for another section of lines from Drum Taps. The gentlemen of the BBC Symphony Chorus match the earlier excellence of their female colleagues. The fourth movement reverts to The Iliad but whereas in the first movement we glimpsed the Trojan War from the standpoint of a Trojan general here, in ‘Achilles goes forth to battle’ it’s the Greek side of the conflict that’s represented. Davis impels this music forward excitingly. Groves, though good, isn’t quite as urgent. The BBC chorus makes a tremendous impact. Homer’s words are followed by a sub-section of the movement, ‘The Heroes’. This is, in effect, a roll call of mythological heroes, the words authored by Bliss himself. Again the choir and orchestra put this section across with great power.
From the heroism of valorous deeds as portrayed in literature and mythology, Bliss confronts the twentieth-century reality of war in his fifth movement, ‘Now trumpeter for thy close’ – a title lifted from Whitman’s The Mystic Trumpeter. First the orator recites Wilfred Owen’s Spring Offensive. If I had a slight preference for John Westbrook in the first movement then Samuel West wins the palm in the Owen recitation. It helps to have a younger-sounding voice here – Owen was only in his early twenties when he wrote this poem. More than that, West better catches the bitter incomprehension and sadness of Owen’s lines. Westbrook is still admirable in many ways – not least the extra drama that he injects at “Exposed!” where Owen graphically describes the soldiers going over the top; here and in the lines that follow he makes more of the words than West does. However, overall I find West even more convincing.
Bliss’s scoring – if we can call it that – is astonishingly original and imaginative here. There is virtually no accompaniment to the orator’s recitation save for timpani rumbling ominously in the background like distant, menacing guns. Only once – at “Exposed!” – do the drums play loudly and that’s terrifying. What a masterstroke it is for Bliss to reintroduce the orchestra as the orator recites Owens last line, “Why speak they not of comrades that went under?” The woodwind play melancholy, lilting material from the first movement and the effect is very moving. The chorus then sing Robert Nichols’ Dawn on the Somme. The music begins quietly, almost like a hymn, but gradually the intensity increases as Nichols’ ‘morning heroes’ are saluted. If this music sounds like a glorification of heroism then who better than Bliss to write in this vein? After all he had been through he was surely entitled to celebrate heroism. Yet the work ends on a subdued, pensive note and that too feels eminently right.
Morning Heroes is a work of great stature and I find it very moving indeed. I’d go so far as to say that along with the Meditations on a Theme of John Blow it represents Bliss at his very finest. So it’s a cause for rejoicing that it should receive such a fine recording as this. I saw Sir Andrew Davis galvanise his forces at the Three Choirs Festival and clearly he had the same effect here. I find that he’s often more involving and dramatic than Groves, though I certainly won’t be jettisoning that 1974 recording. Both the chorus and orchestra respond with great commitment and skill. The Chandos SACD sound is superb. The music comes over with great impact – the performers have a lot to do with that – and there’s both richness and an abundance of detail in the recording. The Groves recording is now more than forty years old. To be honest, returning to it for comparisons I was surprised at how well it still sounds. However, the EMI recording inevitably lacks the amplitude and punch of the Chandos sound, Furthermore, there’s far more detail audible in the Chandos recording – the string writing underneath the oration in parts of the first movement, for example. Also the EMI microphones seem to have been placed further away from the performers than is the case with this new recording. As a result, the Liverpool Philharmonic Choir doesn’t sound as vivid as the BBC Symphony Chorus. There’s no doubt at all that this new Davis recording is now a clear first choice for this fine score.
The “filler” is interesting – and relevant. Bliss wrote Hymn to Apollo in 1926 in gratitude to Pierre Monteux for his early championship of A Colour Symphony. Indeed, it was Monteux who gave the first performance, with the Concertgebouw Orchestra. It seems that very early on Bliss was dissatisfied with the work but he didn’t get round to revising it until 1964. In that revision he cut 21 bars and altered the scoring, eliminating a few instruments altogether, including a second set of timpani. There have been two recordings that I know of. One was by the composer himself for Lyrita (review). As ever, Lyrita are irritatingly coy about providing recording dates. However, in the booklet small print we read that a copy of the original LP was presented to Sir Arthur at a Prom concert in August 1971 to celebrate his eightieth birthday. So we can surmise a recording date of 1970 or early 1971. Bliss uses the revised score for his recording, as does Vernon Handley in a 1989 Chandos version (CHAN 8818 also CHAN2 41-1). Sir Andrew offers the original version of the score, recording it for the first time. In his excellent booklet notes Andrew Burn speculates – convincingly, I think – that Hymn to Apollo may well have been another musical commemoration of Kennard Bliss. It’s a strong piece and in writing it Bliss was clearly being eloquent about something, quite possibly the loss of his brother. Davis conducts it with great conviction and the BBC Symphony plays it very well. However, it’s noticeable that the Davis performance is quite a bit shorter than the other two recordings. Sir Arthur takes 10:23 and Handley 11:20 – and remember, the original score is slightly longer. The basic pace that Davis adopts is rather swifter than Sir Arthur and I rather think that the composer’s own recording is a bit more successful in conveying what Andrew Burn refers to as “a slow processional motion”. Nonetheless, Davis’s performance is very good on its own terms.
This is a splendid disc. The performance standard is extremely high and Ralph Couzens’ engineering is excellent. Similarly excellent are the notes by Andrew Burn. Bliss devotees should acquire this as a matter of urgency and other collectors are strongly urged to hear this eloquent musical commemoration of the fallen of World War I. On this evidence Sir Andrew Davis appears to be a doughty champion of Bliss. I hope he may record more of his music in the future: might we hope, at last, for a modern recording of The Beatitudes?
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