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Sir Arthur BLISS (1891-1975)
The Enchantress (1951) [17:11]
Meditations on a theme by John Blow (1955) [32:11]
Mary of Magdala (1962-63) [27:17]
Sarah Connolly (mezzo-soprano)
James Platt (bass)
BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus/Andrew Davis
rec. 2019, Watford Colosseum
Texts included

Andrew Davis and the BBC Symphony forces made a fine showing in Bliss’ The Beatitudes (review). In this latest release they give a premiere recording of Mary of Magdala, his 1962-63 cantata, to which they add The Enchantress, a scena written for Kathleen Ferrier and one of his well-known orchestral works, and his best, the Meditations on a theme of John Blow.

The Meditations date from 1955 and Davis proves an interpreter of probing clarity and purity – just listen to the way he encourages the wind lines not simply in the introduction but throughout (try the scherzando called ‘Lambs’). He is incisively fast in the fourth panel ‘He restoreth my soul’ where Blow’s theme oscillates but is never made explicit and is warmly textured in the Larghetto ‘In green pastures’. Sections are defined, the balance is fine, the tranquillo passage is suitably gauzy and the preparation for the poco agitato section is expertly judged. Punctuating brass and stabbing strings abound whilst the percussion gets its head in the vision of the valley of the shadow of death. Davis’ control of pacing and incident is fine, and he tends to be rather bluffer rhythmically than Hugo Rignold – whose performance was, I’m sure, the way many people first came to love this music. The bluffness tends to be felt rhythmically and however grand the peroration in the finale, Rignold is grander yet, his brass more cutting, the cymbals and bells more visceral. Davis is the more measured and consonant – note the precision of Davis’ string descant - but no one has beaten Rignold for sheer excitement.

The alternatives aren’t numerous. This is a work long associated with the City of Birmingham Orchestra, for which it was written and to whom it was dedicated along with its conductor Rudolf Schwarz. They premièred it in December 1955 and the first recording was given by the orchestra but with Rignold, for Lyrita. Vernon Handley’s 1979 EMI recording still sounds excellent. There’s a thoroughly convincing traversal from Charles Groves with the Royal Liverpool from 1975 on BBC Radio Classics though it can’t match the two more recent performances for sonic clarity and depth.

The Enchantress, with its text from Theocritus adapted by Henry Reed, was premiered in a Manchester broadcast by Ferrier in October 1951 with Charles Groves conducting the BBC Northern Symphony. Its concert première came the following year with Ferrier, the LSO and Rignold. Sarah Connolly is the soloist here. The simmering romanticism of the work, with sinuous string figures and an exploration of the black arts couched in music of declamatory and fiery intensity, is perfectly suited to Connolly’s command of visceral quasi-operatic drama. There is an immolatory vehemence to her performance, securely buttressed by Davis and his BBC forces, who are rather more deft and subtle than their 1957 predecessors for Schwarz.

The first commercial recording was given by Linda Finnie accompanied by Vernon Handley and the Ulster Orchestra on Chandos (CHAN8818). Lyrita has issued an archive performance of the work (REAM1115) with Pamela Bowden and Rudolf Schwarz, the principal work being The Beatitudes, conducted by the composer (review).

This disc will be especially desirable, however, for Mary of Magadala, a near half-hour sacred cantata with a text by Christopher Hassell, to whose memory the piece is dedicated. He took texts from the scriptures and from two seventeenth-century poems, one in his own adaptation. The text concerns how, on the third day, Mary was the first to see the risen Christ, at first supposing him to be a gardener. The rapidity of the setting is notable from then opening refined chorus to the first of the two solos for Mary, where her quick pacing conveys the immediacy of the impending revelation. Her melisma on the word ‘befriend’, as she contemplates what she believes to be Christ’s corpse develops into an almost Elgarian ardour of expression – where the clarinet shadows tenderly. The chorus’ contempt for Mary, the ‘harlot’, has a frenzied derision that is soothed by the consoling voice of Christ and Mary’s own second passage includes lines that are lullaby-like in their innocence. Radiantly Elysian winds accompany the section where Christ speaks to Mary and there is much radiant beauty as the work enters its final section, from visionary purity to awed simplicity and rapture. Connolly’s eloquence as she masters the various expressive states demanded of her is the central focus but James Platt proves a sensitive and convincing Christ. In fact, it’s hard to conceive why this work has been so little heard and never before recorded.

For that alone this disc would be welcome but in a sympathetic acoustic with fiercely engaged but sensitively shaped readings, Bliss adherents will need to add this to their roster of necessary discs.

Jonathan Woolf

Previous review: John Quinn

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