Sir Arthur BLISS (1891-1975)
The Beatitudes, F.28 (1961) [51:02]
Introduction and Allegro, F.117 (1926, rev. 1937) [12:09]
God Save the Queen (arr. Bliss for choir and orchestra, 1969) [2:59]
Emily Birsan (soprano)
Ben Johnson (tenor)
BBC Symphony Chorus, BBC Symphony Orchestra /Sir Andrew Davis
rec. May 2017, Watford Colosseum. DSD.
CHANDOS CHSA5191 SACD [66:31]
In 2012 I was invited to preview for MusicWeb International a performance of The Beatitudes in Coventry Cathedral. As an admirer of the music of Sir Arthur Bliss I was keen to oblige but I faced one problem: I had never heard the work in question. There was no available recording and I had never been aware of a broadcast or public performance. Fortunately, I was lent a copy of an off-air broadcast of the work, a performance given by the Bach Choir in 1991 under the baton of Sir David Willcocks. I was thus able to write my preview and a few weeks later I enjoyed very much the performance conducted in Coventry Cathedral by Paul Daniel (review).
The problem of the absence from the catalogue of a recording remained. I heard rumours of efforts to enable the Daniel performance, which had been broadcast by the BBC, to appear on disc but nothing came of this. Then, wonder of wonders, two live performances, both conducted by the composer, were issued on CD. First, Dutton issued a recording of the work’s 1962 first performance. That was better, both as a performance and as a recording per se, than I had expected from what I had read in the past about the constraints under which that performance took place (review). Then, in 2015, Lyrita put us in their debt by issuing an off-air recording from the Itter Collection, of a performance given at the1964 Proms. This was preferable in many ways (review). Still, however, we lacked a modern digital recording of The Beatitudes. No longer! Immediately following a London concert performance in May 2017, which impressed my Seen and Heard colleague, Alan Sanders (review) Sir Andrew Davis took the same forces to Watford Colosseum to set down this recording for Chandos.
Let there be no doubt: this is an important and highly significant addition to the Bliss discography. Sir Andrew’s 2015 recording of Morning Heroes indicated that he has a fine feeling for the music of Bliss (review): this new release confirms that in spades. The Beatitudes is not an easy work to bring off, nor does it reveal itself completely to the listener at a first hearing. Structurally, though, I think it works well and the score contains a good deal of fine music. It’s one of those anthology works so beloved of British composers. Bliss sets the nine Beatitudes, as related in the fifth chapter of St Matthew’s Gospel. He intersperses these with settings of poems which complement the Beatitudes themselves. His choice of authors includes George Herbert – the three poems he selected were all included in Vaughan Williams’ Five Mystical Songs – Henry Vaughan, Dylan Thomas and Jeremy Taylor. The libretto was fashioned with the help of the poet Christopher Hassall and I think it hangs together convincingly.
The present recording is a fine achievement but there’s one disappointment which I may as well confront at once. Bliss knew that the new Coventry cathedral was to have a substantial purpose-built organ, commissioned from the firm of Harrison & Harrison. Accordingly, he included a significant independent organ part in his score. When the premiere was relocated to a theatre in Coventry one of many reasons that made the chosen venue completely unsuitable was the absence of an organ – a pretty weedy electronic instrument was brought in for the occasion. The Proms performance issued by Lyrita uses the Royal Albert Hall organ but the historic, off-air recording, while good in many respects, doesn’t allow the organ to make its full impact. I had been hoping that a modern digital recording, with all the expertise of Chandos, would include a thrilling organ sound but this hope isn’t truly realised. I don’t know if there’s an organ in situ at Watford Colosseum or whether an instrument was imported. You can hear the organ but not with an ideal presence. The organ is crucial at several points including the stormy Prelude, in the Dylan Thomas setting (‘And death shall have no dominion’) and at the loud acclamations of ‘Amen’ which are heard near the close. As I say, the organ is audible but it lacks sufficient presence. Just to check my memory, I listened to the off-air recording I made of the BBC broadcast of Paul Daniels’ performance in 2012. There Coventry Cathedral’s Harrison & Harrison instrument is heard in all its imposing glory: that was what Bliss had in mind.
However, that’s the only reservation I have. The two soloists are excellent. Bliss gave both his soprano and his tenor a lot of challenging, lyrical music to sing and neither Emily Birsan nor Ben Johnson disappoints. The two commercially available live recordings have illustrious soloists: Jennifer Vyvyan and Richard Lewis, who sang in the first performance, and Heather Harper and Gerald English who were on duty at the Proms. I honestly don’t feel that Birsan and Johnson suffer in comparison. They impress in the ecstatic carolling passages that Bliss gives his soloists in ‘I got me flowers’ and they bring out all the poetry in the movement that sets Beatitudes five to eight. They make truly eloquent contributions to the Epilogue where Bliss is serene and reassuring in his setting of the prayer ‘O blessed Jesu’ by Jeremy Taylor (1613-1667).
The BBC Symphony Chorus, trained by David Temple, are also on fine form. Quite a lot of the choral music is powerful and this choir rises to the challenge. In the penultimate section, ‘Voices of the Mob’, their singing is bitingly incisive, matching the playing of the BBC Symphony Orchestra. A little earlier, in the scalding music to which the Dylan Thomas poem is set, the choir’s delivery is dramatic and strongly committed. They’re just as successful in the calmer section, though, amongst which I’d single out the delicacy of ‘I got me flowers’ in which Bliss is in his ingratiating pastoral vein.
The BBC Symphony Orchestra makes a distinguished contribution. Bliss was a colourful and resourceful orchestrator and The Beatitudes is a choice example of his use of the modern symphony orchestra for illustrative purposes. The orchestra, urgently directed by Davis, sets out its stall immediately in the turbulent Prelude. At once, the listener realises that, at last, The Beatitudes is going to benefit from modern digital sound. The playing of the BBCSO in this Prelude is taut and incisive and even when we reach the passage that Bliss marked tranquillo, the music achieves only an uneasy calm, a point emphasised by the atmospheric playing in this present performance. Elsewhere, the BBCSO joins with the chorus to give a punchy and strongly projected rendition of the brazen martial music in the setting of words from Isaiah (‘The lofty looks of man shall be humbled’). Like their colleagues in the choir, the players of the BBCSO are adept in delivering with finesse the calmer, more delicate stretches of the score.
In Sir Andrew Davis The Beatitudes has a doughty champion. The music is, by turns, fiery and dramatic or lyrical and rapt: Davis brings out all these facets. More than that, as is his wont, he conducts with evident belief in the score, inspiring his performers.
I fear that The Beatitudes may never become a repertoire piece, though that would be unfair to a work of evident sincerity and no little inspiration. However, if the lack of a first-class modern recording has held it back then this constraint upon the work’s acceptance no longer applies. Admirers of the music of Sir Arthur Bliss have had to wait a long time – too long – for a studio recording of the work but the wait has been worthwhile.
The Introduction and Allegro was composed in 1926, inspired by the virtuosity of Leopold Stokowski, to whom the score is dedicated, and his Philadelphia Orchestra. It’s a colourful and inventive work which confirms Bliss’s talent as an orchestral composer which he had already demonstrated in A Colour Symphony (1922). The work is a short but effective showpiece for orchestra and it’s a shame it’s not heard more often. The present performance is an excellent one. I wonder, in passing, if the form, and especially, the title of the work did not constitute a compliment to Elgar, whose influence had secured for Bliss the prestigious commission to compose the dazzling A Colour Symphony for the 1922 Three Choirs Festival.
Perhaps surprisingly there’s also an American link to the arrangement of God Save the Queen. As Andrew Burn relates in his notes, Bliss composed it for Wyn Morris and Royal Choral Society to perform on their 1969 tour of the USA. Bliss sets three verses of the National Anthem and the result is a big, confident setting, resplendent in full orchestral panoply. I like the way Davis takes the music at a sensibly forward-moving pace, not suffering the performance to sound pompous.
My reservation about the organ in The Beatitudes aside, this is an excellently recorded disc from Chandos. I listened to the hybrid disc as an SACD using the stereo option and I admired the clarity and presence of the sound. In the choral works a good balance has been achieved between choir and orchestra while the two soloists are ideally placed. Bliss’s scoring is extremely well served here. The notes by Andrew Burn are excellent. This is a mandatory purchase for all admirers of the composer. Once again, we are indebted to Chandos for plugging a significant gap in the discography of British music.
I hope that Chandos will invite Sr Andrew to record more Bliss since he has an evident affinity with the music. An ideal coupling would be the fine A Colour Symphony and the masterly Meditations on a Theme of John Blow. I’m certain that both scores would suit Davis and neither has been the subject of a recording for quite some time.
Previous review: Nick Barnard