Compelling Revival of Morning Heroes at the Three Choirs Festival

29/07/2015

  Three Choirs Festival (5). Sibelius, Bliss: Malcolm Sinclair (narrator), Three Choirs Festival Chorus, Philharmonia Orchestra, Sir Andrew Davis (conductor). Hereford Cathedral, 27.7.2015 (JQ)

Sibelius – Symphony No 5 (1915, rev. 1919)
BlissMorning Heroes (1930)

This was a carefully chosen programme that was very much in tune with the Three Choirs Festival’s ongoing commemoration of the centenary of the First World War. Sibelius composed his Fifth Symphony during early years of the war, though, as is usual, we heard it tonight in the radically-revised version of 1919. Though Bliss conceived and wrote Morning Heroes in 1930 it’s a score which very much reflects the impact of his own war time active service and, crucially, the death in action of his brother, Kennard Bliss, who fell at the Battle of the Somme in 1916. Bliss himself was wounded at the Somme. In introducing the concert the Dean of Hereford drew our attention to a memory of the Great War that is much closer to home. In a few days’ time it will be the centenary of the landing by the Herefordshire Regiment at Suvla Bay on 6 August 1915 during the ill-fated Gallipoli campaign. The regiment sustained calamitous losses at Suvla Bay: out of 750 men who took part in the landing less than 100 survived; a sobering thought indeed.

The performance of the Sibelius Fifth that opened the concert was powerful and bracing. Sir Andrew Davis, conducting without a baton, drew an urgent, committed performance from the Philharmonia. There was tension in the air right from the start of the first movement and this was maintained throughout.  Of particular note during the first movement was the chilly, desolate bassoon threnody against an accompaniment of glacially hushed strings. Later, a very powerful climax was achieved before the music transitioned seamlessly into what is, in effect, the scherzo. Here Davis handled the very gradual acceleration of the music skilfully, obtaining playing from the Philharmonia which became increasingly urgent as the music gathered pace. The last pages were very exciting.

The slow movement is essentially a set of variations on a simple theme. Sibelius varies this material enterprisingly and Davis and the orchestra gave a good account of the music, at the same time offering a necessary respite from the tensions of the outer movements.  The finale got off to a propulsive start, the Philharmonia strings driving forward excitingly. The crucial tolling horn theme sounded majestic at its first appearance but when Sibelius brings it back at the movement’s culmination Davis and the orchestra achieved a grandeur that would not have been out of place in a Bruckner symphony. As well as admiring the performance very much I was left to reflect at the end on what a miracle of compression this symphony is. In this performance it lasted about 30 minutes but Sibelius manages to cram so much into the score that one has the impression of experiencing a composition on an altogether bigger scale.

It’s many years since I first got to know Morning Heroes through the fine 1974 recording conducted by Sir Charles Groves (review). Since then there’s also been a recording conducted by Michael Kibblewhite. In many ways that’s very good though for my taste Brian Blessed is too declamatory in the crucial role of the narrator (review). I much prefer the more measured and patrician delivery of John Westbrook on the Groves recording.  But I’ve never had the chance to experience this score live so I have been looking forward to this Three Choirs performance for a long time. It’s not the first occasion the work has been heard at Three Choirs. It was brought to the festival in 1933, commendably soon after the first performance, and was heard again in 1991 though I’m not sure it’s been given since. Both of those previous performances were given at Hereford festivals.

Returning to Three Choirs after his excellent performance of Elgar’s Caractacus in Worcester in 2011 (review), Sir Andrew Davis was a very logical choice for this assignment. He conducted BBC forces in a rare live performance of this work in London earlier this year when both work and performance were warmly received by my colleague, Alan Sanders (review). This was followed immediately by a recording for Chandos, which is apparently due for release before the end of this year. The London performance and recording had Samuel West as the narrator and he was due to take on this role again tonight. Disappointingly, however, he withdrew due to filming commitments. At short notice the highly experienced stage and TV actor, Malcolm Sinclair stepped into the breach. It was lucky for the festival that he was available for his biography revealed that he has appeared as speaker in a number of concert performances, including Schoenberg’s A Survivor from Warsaw. More relevantly, he had previously taken part in Morning Heroes – I doubt many have that experience – with Vernon Handley. As Handley died in 2008 I presume Mr Sinclair hasn’t performed this role recently which makes it all the more remarkable that he should have fitted so seamlessly – and so well – into this performance without, one presumes, a great deal of prior warning.

Morning Heroes is a substantial score – I timed this performance at about 57 minutes – and it’s cast in five movements. The first of these, ‘Hector’s Farewell to Andromache’, is for speaker and orchestra and the text is taken from Homer’s Iliad in an English translation by one W. Leaf. Here Hector, the Trojan warrior leader, bids farewell to his wife and infant son before heading to a battle with the Greeks in which he will be slain by Achilles. The text mixes tenderness for his family with a warrior’s all-encompassing sense of duty. I thought Malcolm Sinclair gave a fine, well-weighted recitation of the text; he was sensitive to its meaning and never over-cooked the emotion. On the podium Davis gave notice in the orchestral introduction that he was in command of and had great empathy for the score.

The second movement, ‘The City Arming’, uses words from Walt Whitman’s Drum Taps. This is powerful, colourfully scored music and I thought the Festival Chorus excelled. Their singing was forthright, clearly energised by Davis’s urgent conducting. The choir, in alliance with the orchestra, conjured up very effectively the hubbub and frenzied bustle of a city anticipating conflict. The singing was incisive and full-bodied.

The middle movement, ‘Vigil – The Bivouac’s Flame’ combines words by the Chinese poet, Li-Tai-Po (701-762) and more from Drum Taps. Po’s lines voice the thoughts of a soldier’s wife left at home and are sung by the female voices. I was moved by the fresh tone and responsive singing that the Festival Chorus ladies brought to this touching music. The male voices dominate the Whitman setting which depicts a soldier on night time guard duty. The gentlemen of the Festival Chorus matched the excellence of their female colleagues with firm-toned singing.

The forth movement, ‘Achilles Goes Forth to Battle – The Heroes’ reverts to the Iliad. The orchestral introduction and, indeed, the choral parts when the singers join in, seem to me to bear Bliss’s stylistic fingerprints more than any other part of the work. This is exciting, full-blooded music and that’s how it sounded in this taut, committed performance.  Davis drove the music forward with great conviction. I thought the performance was gripping and the chorus were particularly fine here.

And so to the emotional peak of the score: ‘Now Trumpeter for Thy Close’. The first part is a recitation of Wilfred Owen’s Spring Offensive. The speaker is minimally accompanied – apart from some pedal points there are some telling interjections by the timpani, clearly representing the sound of artillery. I thought Malcolm Sinclair was compelling. His recitation wasn’t quite as measured in its pacing as that of John Westbrook but it was still highly effective and very moving. Arguably he could have made more of the critical word “Exposed” as the troops go over the top but nonetheless his delivery of this intensely moving poem was masterly, not least the enunciation of the last line: “Why speak they not of comrades that went under?” In a masterstroke, just before these words are spoken Bliss has reintroduced the orchestra, playing gentle, regretful music which leads into a deeply eloquent choral setting of Robert Nichols’ poem Dawn on the Somme. Bliss builds this setting to a fervent, heroic climax and I thought the choir brought off this music superbly. But Morning Heroes is about much more than an overt celebration of gallantry – though that has its place. Bliss refuses to end on an heroic note. Instead the orchestra alone is left to conclude the work in a very subdued fashion. Surely Bliss is reminding us here that, though we rightly celebrate bravery, above all we remember those who were lost.

This was an extremely fine performance which leads me now to await Sir Andrew’s forthcoming recording with impatience. In preparation for this performance I had listened again to the Groves recording. Though the Liverpool Philharmonic Choir sang well on that occasion I think it can be fairly said that the singing of the Festival Chorus tonight showed how much choral standards have improved over the intervening four decades.

At the last Hereford Festival Geraint Bowen facilitated the revival of a sadly neglected major British choral work, Dyson’s The Canterbury Pilgrims (review). Three years later he’s done it again, reminding us that Morning Heroes is a fine and eloquent score. And, of course, there’s also a revival of Lux Aeterna by William Mathias to come later this week. I wonder what neglected piece will catch Mr Bowen’s perceptive eye for the 2018 Festival.

John Quinn

Full details of the 2015 Three Choirs Festival are at www.3choirs.org

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