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Sir Granville BANTOCK (1868-1946)
Omar Khayyám (complete) (1906-09) [172.34]
Sarah Walker (alto) – The Beloved; Anthony Rolfe Johnson (tenor) – The Poet; Brian Rayner Cook (baritone) – The Philosopher; Judith Rees (soprano), Marion Dodd (mezzo), Patricia Taylor (alto), David Fieldsend (tenor), Jeremy White (baritone), Michael George (bass) – Pots
BBC Singers; BBC Symphony Orchestra/Norman Del Mar
rec. Studio 1, Maida Vale, London, 5-6 January 1979 (broadcast 26 March 1979). Stereo.
Sappho (1906): Prelude and Fragments (see main text)* [42.58]
Fifine at the Fair (1912) [30.15]
The Pierrot of the Minute (1908) [11.27]
Johanna Peters* (alto)
BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra/Norman Del Mar
rec. from broadcast on 7 August 1968. Mono.
BBC recordings
LYRITA ITTER BROADCAST COLLECTION REAM.2128 [4 CDs: 73.06 + 61.41 + 68.05 + 54.25]

First an explanation of the "Lyrita Itter Broadcast Collection". Richard Itter, founder of and leading light behind the Lyrita recording company, lived close to the BBC Wrotham transmitter. He was thus able to make first class recordings, on state of the art equipment. The collection comprises some 1,500 recordings including Prom concerts, premieres, operas, symphonies and chamber music. Most of these were never played and have remained in excellent condition. In 2014, the Lyrita Recorded Edition Trust began to issue CDs from this priceless archive. The present Norman Del Mar recording of Bantock’s epic Omar Khayyám is an important work in this collection.

Bantock’s Omar Khayyám is scored for a large orchestra, chorus and three solo vocalists; his facility, imagination and inspired use of these forces never falters through the settings of all 101 quatrains of Edward Fitzgerald’s Rubaiyat. Here is hedonistic evocation and erotic allure through masterly use of the orchestra including multi-part string writing. The strings are divided into two complete string orchestras, one on either side of the conductor to produce subtly nuanced effects and an extraordinary richness of tone. There is always something to arrest the ear and maintain interest. That said, some might find a faltering level of textual inspiration in quatrains 82-90 dealing with those clay pots.

The term ‘rubaiyat’ refers, in this context, to short epigrammatic poems of the medieval Persian poet, mathematician and philosopher Omar Khayyám. Edward Fitzgerald’s version unflinchingly presents an uncompromising secular vision of life with little or no chance of life after death and therefore, instead, a pressing need to love and make merry for “The Bird of Time has but a Little way / To flutter and the Bird is on the wing.” Not surprisingly, Coleridge Taylor’s earlier, less troublesome Hiawatha trilogy proved to have an instant and enduring popular appeal. It should be remembered that attitudes were very different at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Although a minority intelligentsia, swayed by Darwin and the newer secular thinking, might have welcomed Omar Khayyám’s philosophy, the majority were practising Christians and were very probably rattled by such a challenge to their religious tenets and consolations and dismayed by such lines as “While you live, Drink! – for, once dead, you never shall return.” Moreover, to stage a complete Omar Khayyám must have seemed a daunting prospect for all but the richest and most adventurous music societies; the first complete performance was at London’s Queen’s Hall — destroyed by a World War II bomb — on 15 February 1910.

Now to my review of this set: I have already mentioned the excellent sound quality of the recording. Added to this is the immediacy and spontaneity of the performance. To mention, first, two outstanding purely orchestral sections from the infinitely superior Part I covering quatrains 1–54. Both of these have been recorded previously notably by Vernon Handley in 2001 with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra on Hyperion CDA67250 (review). The first is the Prelude to the whole work and is a marvellously wrought piece of scenic painting evoking a sunrise over the desert. At its majestic climax, the sun ‘strikes the Sultan’s turret with a shaft of light’. The second orchestral piece, ‘Interlude, The Desert, The Caravan’ is equally arresting if not more so; one gets a real sense of a desert, arid yet infinitely colourful in the intense sunlight, and the caravan’s progress, the camels recognisable from their bells and the swaying motion of their eccentric gait. It's all so imaginatively evoked by Bantock. There are memorable orchestral highpoints dotted throughout the score; one such being the witty, strident brass raspberry in the line, ‘How Sultan after Sultan with his Pomp / Abode his destined hour, and went his way.’

The three soloists here represented the cream of British singers at the time of the recording and all were at the peak of their careers. Sarah Walker singing the role of the Beloved and Anthony Rolfe Johnson as her lover Poet bring romance and voluptuous sensuality to the famous lines ‘… A jug of wine, a loaf of bread, – and thou / Beside me singing in the wilderness …’ Bryan Rayner Cook impresses strongly; he is witheringly scornful in his condemnation of received philosophies with such lines as ‘Why, all the Saints and Sages who discuss’d / Of the Two Worlds so wisely – they are thrust like foolish / Prophets forth, their words to scorn / Are scatter’d, and their mouths are stopt with dust.’

In short, on every level, this recording eclipses that of Vernon Handley on Chandos CHSA 5051(3) (review) itself a notable and very satisfying release. Were it not for the other, less satisfactory performances, this would be a "Recording of the Month".

Finally it should be said that this recording is in stereo whereas the remaining items on this release are in mono and recorded at a lower level. One is recommended to adjust the volume control upwards. I noticed this when I first listened to Fifine at too low a volume to appreciate its worth.

For the record this Omar Khayyám is laid out as follows:-

CD 1: Part One (1906) – Quatrains 1- 47
CD 2: Part One - Quatrains 48-54; Part Two (1907) – Quatrains 55-81
CD 3: Part Three (1909) – Quatrains 82-101

As commentators have observed Fifine at the Fair is a rather fey and, perhaps, off-putting title. It is in fact a most engaging work that has appeal in terms of both the lewdly erotic and husbandly fidelity. Think of the contrasts in the Tannhäuser Overture and I think you will know what I mean. The inspiration for this work was a poem by Robert Browning, and as Michael Hurd has written was “… considered … to be almost unreadable [for its] inordinate length, tortuous syntax and endless digressions …” It is a story of a married man who strays under the allure of a fairground dancer, Fifine but eventually awakens to the steadfast loyalty of his wife, Elvira. Bantock responds with music that from the entrance of Fifine is striking, with many instruments spotlighted for dramatic effect: sinuously sexy and voluptuous — especially the wayward material written for a solo clarinet — and gloriously noble for Elvira. This mono recording adopts the cuts that Beecham made to the score for his 1950 recording (EMI CDM 7 63405 2 also in an EMI Beecham English Music box). Del Mar’s reading has its moments but I much prefer Vernon Handley’s complete performance - a dynamic 1992 Hyperion recording (CDA66630) with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra which bowled me over when I heard it all those years ago. It elicited a rave review from myself elsewhere. Here is Rob Barnett’s review. Incidentally Bantock added a subtitle to this work – ‘A Defence of Inconstancy’ – and the closing bars of the score suggest just such a sentiment.

I turn now to the Sappho Prelude and Nine Fragments for mezzo-soprano and orchestra. It appears that it was common for concert promoters and conductors to cherry-pick preferred Fragments. In fact Del Mar’s recording has just six. We get to hear the Prelude; Fragment I – ‘Hymn to Aphrodite, Daughter of Zeus’; Fragment II – ‘I loved thee once Atthis, long ago’; Fragment III ‘Evening Song’; Fragment V ‘The moon has set’; Fragment VI ‘Peer of gods he seems’ and Fragment IX ‘Muse of the Golden Throne’. Vernon Handley’s 1997 complete recording (review) with Susan Bickley and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra adds: Fragment IV ‘Stand face to face, friend’; Fragment VII ‘In a dream, I spake’ and Fragment VIII ‘Bridal Song’. I completely agree with Paul Corfield Godfrey when he criticises Johanna Peters’ poor diction. It completely ruins Del Mar’s reading. Handley’s recording wins hands down.

We end with The Pierrot of the Minute: a comedy overture to a dramatic phantasy of Ernest Dowson (full title). This short overture became one of Bantock’s most popular works and has been recorded a few times. Henry Wood recorded it in the days of the 78. Del Mar recorded it for Chandos in 1979 in much better sound on a CD (originally CHAN 6566) that also included works by Frank Bridge and George Butterworth.

Ernest Dowson’s verses are probably better known through Delius’s inspired settings (Songs of Sunset and Cynara). Dowson’s Pierrot is seen by Bantock as something of a misguided buffoon but with an appealing vulnerability in his reckless and ill-judged pursuit of a kiss from a Moon-Maiden. Again there is delicate impressionistic scene-painting. It is once again Handley who really scores here with his vibrant 2003 Hyperion recording CDA67395 (review).

Granville Bantock was knighted in 1930 at the recommendation of Elgar but by that time his music was being increasingly neglected and ignored. It was to be many years, in the concluding decades of the twentieth century, before he was to be ‘rediscovered’ thanks to such champions as Del Mar, Handley, Handford and Boult.

The packaging of this release is impressive with a 44-page booklet that has very full and informed notes by Rob Barnett. The text of all 101 Khayyám quatrains is included.

The presence of the three shorter works might be questionable. Their mono sound is certainly not of the best. The other shorter pieces cannot compare with Handley’s newer vivacious readings.

Ian Lace

Previous review: Paul Corfield Godfrey

 




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