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. 2017, Watford Colosseum. DSD.
CHANDOS CHSA5191 SACD [66:31]
For all lovers of British 20th Century music in general and choral music in particular this release is a cause for considerable celebration. More the fifty five years after its bedevilled premiere Arthur Bliss's great choral work The Beatitudes gets its first commercial recording. I wrote at some length regarding the work's genesis, while reviewing the Lyrita/Itter edition recording of the Proms premiere so I will not repeat that here. In short, together with Britten's War Requiem, this was the main musical commission to mark the consecration of Coventry Cathedral in 1961. Bliss, in his position as Master of the Queen's Musik, held primacy over Britten and The Beatitudes were scheduled for performance in the cathedral. Logistical complications scuppered that plan and in the end Bliss's work was consigned to an acoustically unsympathetic theatre, the Britten triumphed in the Cathedral and the rest is - quite literally - history. A quick look at Amazon shows around 23 versions of the Britten available - with more, I am sure, deleted or harder to find - in comparison to this first proper Beatitudes. The fateful Coventry premiere is available on Dutton but aside from its historical worth it is too compromised sonically and in terms of musical execution for the undecided listener. The Lyrita version is significantly better in every respect and valuable for the committed Bliss collector, as it is conducted by the composer, as was the Coventry premiere. Much more recently, the homecoming of the work - its first performance in the cathedral which inspired - was broadcast by the BBC. Off-air recordings of that performance conducted by Paul Daniel show what a powerful and impressive work this truly is. An impression that this new and excellent Chandos disc triumphantly reinforces.
The same forces of Andrew Davis with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus recorded the other great Bliss choral/orchestral work Morning Heroes some three years ago also in SA-CD sound. I consider Morning Heroes to be one of the composer's greatest works - and good though Davis is, I do prefer other versions. The more I hear The Beatitudes, the more I think it one of his finest later works - in many ways a choral counterpart to The Meditations on a theme of John Blow, but without quite scaling the towering heights of Morning Heroes, which of course served as Bliss's own War Requiem. I remain convinced that Bliss is one of the finest British composers, yet one whose real quality is still undervalued. Aside from the March from Things to Come there are no really familiar 'pops' the wider public will know. His work is complex to play well with the rehearsal time that demands and little likelihood of it commanding big audiences. There is a valid observation - I am not sure I would go as far as to say 'criticism' - that Bliss's musical style and vocabulary did not evolve substantially in the forty years that span The Colour Symphony to The Meditations. The musical fingerprints are very similar across the decades - individuals can decide if such consistency is a strength or weakness.
Bliss pre-dated Britten - or indeed most British composers - in his creation of choral or vocal works that use an anthology of literary sources. The 1928 Pastoral is the earliest example and The Beatitudes continues the thread. Bliss links the actual Beatitudes, taken from St. Matthew's Gospel, with a series of excerpts from poems by Henry Vaughan, George Herbert, Dylan Thomas and Jeremy Taylor. Bliss was concerned that the repetitive nature of the Gospel text would risk a certain 'sameness' in the piece. The modern poems act to break up that potential monotony as well as acting as reflections on those verses. Part of the difficulty at the first performance was the demands the choral writing made for the amateur Festival Chorus, which was struggling to learn two large and difficult works. Indeed Bliss's writing for the voices, whether choral or solo, is pretty unforgiving. The effect when it comes off - especially for the soloists - is wonderfully rapturous with the high-lying lines inter-twining ecstatically. I could imagine this music being sung by light lyric voices, but interestingly Bliss's soloists of choice at the premiere are powerfully voiced; Jennifer Vyvyan and Richard Lewis. Heather Harper with Gerald English at the Proms performance strike me as having voices better suited to both the music and its tessitura. In fact, good though the soloists on this new recording are, both Emily Birsan and Ben Johnson cannot match the fresh-voiced ardency that Harper and English find consistently. That said Birsan is excellent at the cruelly exposed opening of the 9th Beatitude where Harper starts fractionally under pitch. Likewise, I do prefer Birsan to the slightly squally Orla Boylan for Daniel. Daniel's tenor Andrew Kennedy is happy to sing with a consciously fully voice which I wonder was a consequence of the live event and an effort to fill the resonant cathedral space.
Where Daniel does score over Davis is the clear presence of the cathedral organ. Bliss's greatest sorrow at the 1961 premiere was the substitution of an underpowered Hammond electric organ, when he had written a substantial organ part with the cathedral instrument in mind. That omission was rectified for the Proms performance but an almost overly present Royal Albert Hall organ. To my ear the Daniel/BBC PO performance gets is just about perfect - unmistakably there adding timbre not just tonal weight. The Chandos engineers have integrated the organ into the orchestral texture very well but it rarely cuts through the orchestra as it does in Coventry. I am not enough of an organ expert to be able to tell if they have used the Compton [cinema] organ installed in the Watford Colosseum and/or that instrument's suitability for this kind of work. What is not in doubt is the skill with which the Chandos engineers handle the complex layers of this piece from the large and often dense orchestral writing through to the choral and solo work. The Watford Colosseum has become a favoured London recording venue for Chandos, and many of their recent recordings have been technically superb. Also, not in doubt is the sensitivity and virtuosity of the playing of the BBC Symphony Orchestra. This orchestra have featured on three of the four versions mentioned with their Manchester compatriots in the Philharmonic playing on the other - just in case anyone really questions the value of the BBC!
The Proms recording featured a large choir of some four different choruses which of course brings the benefit of an exhilarating massed choral tone but at the expense of complete unanimity of ensemble and attack. Worth noting, too, that the Proms performance under the composer's baton is a good four minutes slower than Davis. On this new recording the BBC SO Chorus is clearly smaller in numerical terms, but no less committed in attack and sensitive to the many subtleties of the score. Perhaps overall Daniel's live performance has a fraction more adrenalin-fuelled dynamism, but Andrew Davis has produced a typically well-prepared and thoughtful reading. If I am sorry that conductors such as Vernon Handley never got to give us a recorded legacy of Bliss's choral works, that is not to diminish the calibre of this new performance. The closing section of the work - Epilogue 'O Blessed Jesu' enshrines the quality of both this deeply considered work and the performance it receives here. The BBC strings are tenderly ecstatic perfection here, with Ben Johnson not quite as tonally free as Gerald English, but still touchingly visionary. Bliss crowns the movement with a brief cry of "Amen" from the full performing forces before the work subsides into a reflective but not wholly unambiguous close. It is that range of emotion and dynamic that this new recording can capture in a way beyond previous versions. Certainly, this must now be considered the recording of choice for those wanting to explore this powerful and moving piece.
Of course for most collectors The Beatitudes will be the reason to buy this disc. But Chandos have seen fit to ice the cake with the addition of two further works. The Introduction and Allegro has had at least a couple of other versions - an old Decca mono(?) recording with the composer conducting the LSO and then a much later Argo disc with Barry Wordsworth and the RPO. Dutton have included the Decca version in the same set as the Beatitudes as part of a valuable "Bliss conducts Bliss" two disc set. There is a third recording by the remarkable Leicestershire Schools Symphony orchestra but I am not sure it ever has made it onto a commercially available CD. Bliss wrote this as a virtuoso celebration of American orchestras. The work was written in 1926 and we are given the standard 1937 revision here. There are distinct echoes of The Colour Symphony in this work from its ceremonial opening through the jagged brass fanfares and sparkling cross-rhythms. I am always surprised that such an appealing work is not heard more often. This new recording is wonderfully precise and neat, certainly tighter and crisper than the more resonant Decca version with Wordsworth. Perhaps the RPO pushes the dynamic envelope more than the new performance here and is more overtly emotional in the a tempo ma piu tranquillo central section. But both performances are very fine and emphasise this style of music, which Bliss made uniquely his own - a hybrid fusion of Elgarian ceremonial and Waltonian muscular energy. At around 12:00 this is an excellent programme opener and, again, I am genuinely surprised it does not feature more often on disc or in the concert hall. Hopefully this new recording will help raise its profile. The disc is completed by a genuine novelty; Bliss's 1969 arrangement of the National Anthem. This is a rather quirky version in that the orchestra seems hell bent - except for a first verse string doubling - on playing anything except the main tune which remains the exclusive reserve of the choir, so we have string descants and brass fanfaring interjections. Its great fun and rather skittish if not the most serious version you might ever conceive - further surprises are a reflective opening to third verse before it builds to a slightly predictable 'big finish'.
Chandos have recorded much Bliss over the years to great and good effect and this disc joins that valued catalogue of significant recordings. In my opinion this is one of Andrew Davis's most valuable recordings. Andrew Burn contributes his usual erudite and interesting note, the SA-CD engineering sounds very good indeed. The booklet cover features what is apparently the only stained glass window representation of The Beatitudes in the World - from Summit New Jersey apparently. Well worth the wait of over half a century.