The Beatitudes in Coventry Cathedral – 50 Years Late!

September 23, 2012

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Schoenberg, Beethoven, Bliss: Orla Boylan (soprano), Andrew Kennedy (tenor), Omar Ebrahim (narrator), Jonathan Scott (organ), Sheffield Philharmonic Chorus, BBC Philharmonic, Paul Daniel (conductor). Coventry Cathedral, 22.9. 2012 (JQ)

Schoenberg – A Survivor from Warsaw, Op. 46
Beethoven – Symphony No 5 in C minor, Op. 67
Sir Arthur Bliss – The Beatitudes

 

The fiftieth anniversary of the consecration of Coventry Cathedral in 1962 is being celebrated in considerable style with a year-long Festival. Previous key events have included a superb and moving performance of Britten’s War Requiem (review) and a significant James MacMillan première (review). This concert presented Bliss’ cantata, The Beatitudes – like War Requiem a commission for the cathedral’s opening – for the very first time in the building for which it was written.

The Beatitudes was premièred at the concert given in Coventry on the evening that the cathedral was consecrated, 25 May 1962. One option open to the organisers of this Golden Jubilee festival would have been to recreate the programme for that concert – Beethoven’s ‘Leonore’ No 3 Overture, The Beatitudes, the ‘Enigma’ Variations and the Hallelujah Chorus and Amen from Messiah. However, a much more thoughtful and imaginative programme emerged instead. Central to the mission and ministry of Coventry Cathedral ever since it was consecrated – indeed, since the building was conceived – has been peace and reconciliation together with a remembrance of the horrors of war, one of which was the devastating air raid on the city in November 1940 when the original cathedral was destroyed. The Beatitudes pits good and evil, peace and violence against each other so it chimes in with the cathedral’s mission. Thus it was highly appropriate to preface the Bliss piece with Schoenberg’s harrowing short work inspired by the dreadful events in the Warsaw ghetto in 1942, followed by what was described in the programme as Beethoven’s “vision of triumph over tragedy”. In the event, however, I felt that the first half was only a qualified success.

In a nice touch, two of the principal artists involved in this concert – conductor Paul Daniel and narrator Omar Ebrahim – were former choristers at Coventry Cathedral, though I doubt they were contemporaries. Ebrahim was a clear and dramatic narrator of Schoenberg’s text and Paul Daniel conducted with great precision. The playing of the BBC Philharmonic seemed sharply pointed. Towards the end the male voices of the Sheffield choir were also involved though it seemed to me that they had to work hard to project over the orchestra. I blush to say it, given the enormity of the work’s subject, but in common with all Schoenberg’s atonal music, A Survivor from Warsaw leaves me pretty cold. However, so far as I could judge this was a good performance.

Daniel allowed a break of only a few seconds before plunging straight into Beethoven’s Fifth – an imaginative idea. There was appropriate vigour in the first movement though I thought the performance took a while to settle and there seemed to be occasions when the BBC Philharmonic’s usually impeccable precision faltered slightly; I rather think that the cathedral’s resonant acoustic vitiated somewhat the tidy delivery of this formidably rhythmic music. The second movement was better suited to the venue and Daniel shaped the music thoughtfully and with care. I enjoyed especially the passages where the cello section was prominent and I appreciated the orchestra’s observance of dynamic contrasts. The spectral quiet stretches of the third movement came off well though in the fugal section there seemed to be some more instances of slight untidiness in the ensemble for which I’m sure the acoustics were to blame. I did wonder, however, whether greater precision might have been attained if Paul Daniel had not elected to conduct this work – unlike the rest of the concert – without a baton. The finale was full of brio and energy, as it should be. I’m sure conductor and orchestra would have given an even more convincing performance of this work in a conventional concert hall acoustic. As it was, emotionally the programme planning was right but the execution was slightly compromised by the acoustic.

Sir Arthur Bliss was one of several British composers commissioned to write new works for the festival associated with the consecration of Coventry Cathedral: other composers invited included Sir Lennox Berkeley, Britten and Sir Michael Tippett. He designed The Beatitudes specifically for performance in the new cathedral, not least through the incorporation of a substantial independent part for the cathedral’s new four manual Harrison & Harrison organ. In the end, as is fairly well known, the première was shunted off into a theatre in the city where the acoustic and physical layout was completely unsuitable and a Hammond organ was brought in as a totally inadequate substitute for the cathedral organ. The conventional wisdom has been that The Beatitudes was moved out of the cathedral at fairly short notice to accommodate both the liturgical schedule of the cathedral and also additional in situ rehearsals for War Requiem. That would have been bad enough and a gratuitous snub to Bliss. However, recent research suggests that the intention to relocate the concert that included The Beatitudes and to make War Requiem the Big Event of the consecration festival was in evidence long before May 1962, though the relocation was not communicated to Bliss until pretty late in the day. Indeed, as early as June 1961 the Precentor of the new cathedral wrote to The Times to clarify an earlier article in the paper, saying that the Bliss première would not take place in the cathedral. Whatever the reasons for relocating the Bliss première away from the cathedral, it seems incredible that no subsequent performance of The Beatitudes was put on in the cathedral and that it has had to wait fifty years for a performance there though no doubt this is due, to some extent, to the general neglect of Bliss’ music in the concert hall, particularly since his death in 1975. More information about the events of 1961 – 62 can be found here.

The score is likely to be unfamiliar to many people and for a more detailed description of it may I refer readers to MusicWeb’s preview of The Beatitudes?

Within a few seconds of the start of this performance it was evident just how important was the role of the organ in Bliss’ score as the instrument made its presence felt in the opening orchestral prelude, ‘A troubled world’. Throughout the performance Jonathan Scott ensured that the cathedral’s imposing organ made a significant contribution, just as Bliss intended. In the resonant acoustic of the cathedral it was inevitable that some details of orchestral scoring would be submerged – these may well register better in the forthcoming BBC broadcast. However, it was clear that the BBC Philharmonic’s playing was first class; in particular the orchestra excelled in projecting the power and, often, the violence of Bliss’ scoring.

Ranged behind the orchestra was the Sheffield Philharmonic Chorus. I presume they had learned the score specially for the occasion and clearly their chorus master, Darius Battiwalla, had done a superb job in preparing them. Their singing was consistently splendid and I was especially impressed by the extent to which they projected the words clearly. That can’t have been easy in such an acoustic and over a large orchestra but the choir did extremely well in this regard. They were also responsive to dynamics and the tone that they produced was excellent. In common with almost every choir in the country they seem somewhat short of male voices, which is a pity, but, that notwithstanding, this is a fine choir and they were on their mettle for this ‘away fixture’ in Coventry. I was told beforehand that the choir was excited about singing the work and on such an occasion; it sounded like that.

Of the two soloists the Irish soprano, Orla Boylan is a singer who I’ve not previously encountered though Andrew Kennedy’s voice is familiar to me. Both soloists have demanding roles; the parts are often high lying and at several times only ecstatic singing will do justice both to Bliss’ music and to the sentiments of the texts. I was most impressed with Miss Boylan. Her tone is rich and full and she was excellent at conveying the various emotional moods of her role. She sang with a fair degree of vibrato – probably inevitable with such a high lying role and in this acoustic – but, crucially, the vibrato did not impede clarity of diction as can often happen, especially with sopranos. She gave a marvellous performance, full of conviction. Andrew Kennedy was no less successful. His singing was often ardent, as required by the music, but he also showed a fine degree of sensitivity.

All these forces were welded together by Paul Daniel. He’s well versed in championing unfamiliar music and, as a seasoned opera conductor, he has a fine sense of the dramatic. The latter trait was well to the fore on this occasion. He directed a performance of burning conviction and made the most of Bliss’ red-blooded writing. The concert had been billed as “bringing home” Bliss’ cantata; Paul Daniel brought it home in style and it was in keeping with the spirit of the evening that when acknowledging the warm applause at the end he held the score itself aloft.

Festival Director Michael Foster feels strongly that a great wrong was done to Sir Arthur Bliss in 1962. Due in large part to his vision and determination and also through the skill and commitment of the performers, Coventry made handsome amends tonight.

Is The Beatitudes a neglected masterpiece? I don’t honestly think so, even though I admire the work very much. Regrettably, I doubt it will ever become a repertoire piece – though I hope the Sheffield Philharmonic Chorus, having put in so much work, may get more chances to sing it. It won’t be to all tastes – the elderly gentleman in the seat next to me was clearly unimpressed. However, it is a work of no little stature, as was confirmed tonight, and the almost total neglect it has suffered is unjustified. The music is often powerful and, when performed like this, both the music and the ideas behind the thoughtfully constructed libretto make listeners think. In a generously worded message in the superbly produced programme book, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies made this comment about this piece by the man he described as his “illustrious predecessor” as Master of the Queen’s Music. “The anguished orchestral prelude that depicts ‘A troubled world’ seems perhaps even more relevant now than it was in 1962, as does the message of the Beatitudes.’ Sadly, I’m sure he’s right: that is just one reason why we should hear the work more often.

We must hope that moves to issue this fine and committed performance of The Beatitudes on CD will be successful. In the meantime the whole concert can be heard on BBC Radio 3 on Thursday 27 September, starting at 14.00.

John Quinn

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