Sir Arthur Bliss (1891-1975)
Morning Heroes – A symphony for orator, chorus and orchestra (1930)
Benjamin Britten (1913-1976)
Op 66 (1961)
John Westbrook (orator)
Liverpool Philharmonic Choir
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Charles Groves (Morning Heroes)
Elisabeth Söderström (soprano); Robert Tear (tenor); Thomas Allen (baritone)
Boys of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford; CBSO Chorus
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/Simon Rattle (War Requiem)
rec. July 1974, Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool, 23-24, ADD (Bliss); February & March 1983, Great Hall, University of Birmingham, DDD (Britten)
Texts not included
WARNER CLASSICS 5059092 [2 CDs: 143]
Reviewing this coupling back in 2007 when it was issued in EMI’s British Composers series, Rob Barnett offered this sage advice: “You would do well to track this set down before it too disappears from the scene.” Happily, the set has now been restored to the catalogue, thanks to Presto Classical who have licenced it for their ever-expanding list of on-demand discs. It contains one recording with which I’m very familiar: I bought the Groves recording of Morning Heroes when it was first issued on LP and its remastered CD version has long been in my CD collection. However, though I’m sure I’ve heard it before, Simon Rattle’s recording of War Requiem is one I’ve never owned.
Sir Charles Groves was the first to make a recording of Morning Heroes – yet another example of the invaluable pioneering work of this excellent but sadly underrated conductor. Since then, there have been two more, the most recent of which was the one conducted in 2015 by Sir Andrew Davis (review). Bliss wrote the work in tribute to his brother, Kennard, slain in the First World War at the age of just 23. Moreover, Bliss himself had all-too direct experience of that conflict: he served as an army officer and, for his bravery, was Mentioned in Despatches.
It’s often the case, I think, that one develops a particular affection for the first recording of a particular work that one hears. For me, that’s certainly the case with the Groves recording of Morning Heroes and especially for the contribution of the speaker, John Westbrook (1922-89). His style may seem a bit patrician to some but I think that very quality is ideally suited to the recitation of the passage from The Iliad (‘Hector’s Farewell to Andromache’) which is the text for Bliss’s first movement. The words are delivered in an English translation by one W Leaf and Westbrook’s calm, modulated tones suit the language well. Also, it’s worth remarking that Westbrook’s voice is nicely recorded in the acoustic of Liverpool’s Philharmonic Hall. Again, Westbrook’s calm delivery of Wilfred Owen’s ‘Spring Offensive’ has an air of detachment as if he were viewing the field of battle. It also means that his cry of “Exposed!” is all the more dramatic because it seems to come out of nothing. His inflection of certain lines from Owen’s poem – “Some say God caught them, even before they fell”, or “Why speak they not of comrades that went under?” - seems to me to be so right.
The Liverpool Philharmonic Choir, trained at that time by Edmund Walters, sing very well. They’re spirited in ‘The City Arming’ and I like the delicacy with which the ladies of the choir sing in ‘Vigil’. They really rise to the occasion in the closing chorus, a setting of Robert Nichols’ ‘Dawn on the Somme’. They have a lot of words to sing, especially in ‘The City Arming’, and it’s a shame that this latest incarnation of the EMI Classics booklet didn’t include the texts, as had been the case previously. The RLPO plays very well; there’s power where needed but also finesse in the many delicate episodes. Groves conducts the work skilfully and with evident empathy. Looking back, I see that when the performance came out on CD in 1991, the late Michael Kennedy, writing in Gramophone, commented “the performance is wholehearted, like the conducting (and the composing)…” I completely agree.
The booklet includes the notes which accompanied the 1975 release of Morning Heroes. The author was Felix Aprahamian who says of Bliss’s composition that it is “a symphony more on heroism than on war”. The same could not be said about Britten’s War Requiem but, despite their manifold differences, the two works make a very apt coupling.
The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra has a long history with Britten’s masterpiece. Famously, it was the orchestra which played at the premiere in Coventry Cathedral in 1962, a recording of which is now available on CD (review). Fifty years later to the day, they were back in the cathedral to give an anniversary performance under their then chief conductor, Andris Nelsons; I had the good fortune to attend that concert and it’s been preserved on DVD and Blu-ray (review). We now list 15 recordings of the work in our Masterworks Index, but in 1983 this Rattle recording was only the second that the work had received: Britten’s own 1963 recording had cast a long shadow. The recording must have been among the earliest that Simon Rattle made with the CBSO and its Chorus. I spotted in the booklet that the sessions began the day after a live performance in Birmingham Town Hall.
I was very impressed with this version of War Requiem. I’ve sometimes had reservations about Robert Tear’s singing; it seemed to me that a worrying ‘beat’ developed in his voice as his career wore on. That’s not an issue here. He sings well and with a fine feeling for the words and music. On the occasions that he combines with Thomas Allen they work together as a highly effective partnership – there’s real bite in ‘Out there’. Tear uses a soft, fragile head voice to sing ‘Move him into the sun’, which is taken slightly more slowly than on the Britten recording, I think He’s a bit louder than Peter Pears in the Agnus Dei – Pears is unique here - and makes a moving contribution to ‘Strange meeting’. Sir Thomas Allen is, if anything, even more distinguished. He conveys wonderfully the aching melancholy of ‘Bugles sang’. At the other end of the spectrum, he sings ’Be slowly lifted up, thou long black arm’ with a mixture of dark grandeur and menace. His contribution to ‘Strange meeting’ is memorable.
I really like the singing of Elisabeth Söderström; in fact, cards on the table, I prefer her to Galina Vishnevskaya on the Britten set. She is no less imposing than her Russian peer in ‘Liber scriptus’ and, like Vishnevskaya, she’s imperious in the Sanctus. She scores over Vishnevskaya in two ways, I think. The great Russian soprano’s voice has quite a degree of ‘wobble’ at times when under pressure; Söderström avoids that. Also, listen to her touching singing in reflective passages such as the ‘Lacrymosa’; I don’t believe Vishnevskaya matches that.
Both choirs sing very well. The CBSO Chorus, prepared by Simon Halsey, make a consistently fine showing. As an example of their excellence, sample the vigour and clarity with which they deliver the ‘Quam olim Abrahae’ fugue in the ‘Domine Jesu Christe’ movement; then contrast that with their crisp singing of the same material when it is reprised quietly a few minutes later. The Christ Church Cathedral choristers, who at that time were trained by Francis Grier, are well balanced in the recording and they sing very well throughout, not least in the tricky opening of the ‘Domine Jesu Christe’.
Rattle didn’t follow the composer in using a separate ensemble to play as the chamber orchestra. Instead, he used (as most conductors do) principal players from the orchestra. The soloists from the CBSO do a terrific job, accompanying the tenor and baritone soloists incisively. The main orchestra also plays very well throughout. Rattle’s conducting is excellent; this is a great example of his work in Birmingham at its best. His accompaniment of the male soloists is expertly judged in every respect. He’s long been renowned for his ability to bring out the best in large forces, and that’s in evidence here; the ‘Tuba mirum’, for example is hugely powerful. Two episodes that stand out for me are, firstly, the ‘Libera me’, in which the tension is screwed up until the shattering climax. Secondly, the closing ‘Let us sleep now’ – the only episode in the work that involves the full ensemble – is expertly judged and controlled, achieving a consoling end to this searing masterpiece.
When reviewing the Andrew Davis recording of Morning Heroes, I commented that the Groves recording still sounds well in its 1991 remastering. EMI’s sound for War Requiem also wears its years well. I was interested to see that the same producer, John Willan was in charge of both projects. The engineers were Stuart Eltham (Bliss) and Michael Sheady (Britten). All of these have done their jobs expertly. On sonic grounds, anyone who wishes to buy this pair of discs can do so with confidence.
When reissuing these performances as a set, EMI did not provide texts, which is a shame. The original notes were retained: Felix Aprahamian for the Bliss and Hugh Ottaway for the Britten. Both sets of comments are extremely valuable, as is the extract from Bliss’s autobiography, As I Remember, in which he discussed Morning Heroes.
As I said earlier, these two works are completely different, not just in style and compositional voice but also in what their respective composers set out to achieve. That said, the two scores express profound sentiments and complement each other well. Since both performances are excellent, Presto Classical have done collectors a real service in making them available once again.
Previous review (original EMI release): Rob Barnett