A Welcome and Convincing Revival of Morning Heroes

Berlioz, Bliss: Sarah Connolly (mezzo-soprano),  Samuel West (orator), BBC Symphony Chorus, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Sir Andrew Davis (conductor), Barbican Hall, London, 15.5.2015 (AS)

Berlioz: Les Troyens – Chasse royale et orage
La mort de Cléopâtre
Bliss: Morning Heroes

The combination of Berlioz and Bliss was an intriguing prospect, and in his interesting pre-concert talk Andrew Burn revealed that Bliss had become very taken by the older composer’s music in his early twenties. This was of course at a time when Berlioz was not so well known in the UK and was being brought out of comparative obscurity by the championship of such musicians as Beecham and Harty.

It was the recordings of those two great conductors that came to mind during Sir Andrew Davis’s performance of what is known in English as the “Royal Hunt and Storm”. He took the brief excerpt from Berlioz’s lengthy opera quite briskly, and it was an efficient, lively account of the music, with an effective contribution from the conveniently available BBC Symphony Chorus, but poetry and magic were rather missing.

In March of last year Sarah Connolly sang Berlioz’s song-cycle Nuits d’été at the Royal Festival Hall and now returned to give a performance of the cantata that Berlioz had written 12 years earlier in a fourth attempt to win the coveted Prix de Rome competition. How the 24-year-old composer wrote such an imaginative score to a rather dreary prescribed text by the aptly-named Pierre-Ange Vieillard within the space of three weeks is hard to imagine, especially since the other terms of the competition meant that he had to be shut up in a tiny attic room for 22 hours a day and only let out under close supervision. If it wasn’t for the fact that Berlioz produced the revolutionary Symphonie fantastique just a year or so later we would no doubt marvel even more at the startlingly novel depiction of the Egyptian Queen’s death by snakebite that concludes La mort de Cléopâtre. Alas, it was all too much for the Paris Conservatoire professors, and Berlioz was not awarded the prize until his fifth attempt a year later.

Sarah Connolly gave a technically admirable performance of the no doubt difficult mezzo-soprano part, but as in her previous Berlioz performance her words were not clear and her French pronunciation left something to be desired. It was a reading that rather lacked sheer beauty of sound and it was less than compelling dramatically.

If you hear just a few bars of orchestral music by Sir Arthur Bliss it is usually possible to identify him as the composer. Yet his individual voice is heard far too infrequently these days in the concert hall, though his chamber works do get a very occasional airing. He has the misfortune to be one of those British composers who were active in the first half of the last century and who are now out of favour. In the case of Bliss, that neglect is particularly regrettable, as listeners to this performance of Morning Heroes will surely have realised.

This work was written in 1930 and is a setting in five parts of words from The Iliad, from Li PO, Walt Whitman and two First World War poets, Wilfred Owen and Robert Nicholls. The subject is the effect of war, seen in varying aspects – successively the parting of loved ones before the event, preparations for conflict, the feelings of those left at home, heroism and finally death in battle. Bliss was himself a decorated hero in the Great War, but what affected him more than anything else in the conflict was the death of his brother Kennard. It is the enduring grief of this event that inhabits Morning Heroes. The composition of this work served as something of a release for Bliss, and in fact brought to an end many years of a recurring war nightmare that had afflicted him.

The work is cast in the form of a palindrome, with the outer two movements written for “orator” and orchestra, two fast movements – the second and fourth – and a central slow episode, the latter three all featuring the chorus and orchestra.

It has been possible to hear the work on disc through two performances under the direction of Sir Charles Groves, one recorded under studio conductions in 1974 by EMI, and the other recorded live by the BBC in 1982. But to some Barbican listeners, including this reviewer, Morning Heroes will have been entirely new. For at least one pair of ears, then, the work made a very strong impact. Its expressive qualities are very strong and immediate; the musical invention is inspired and there are passages of great beauty as well as intense drama. No wonder that Bliss declared Morning Heroes (and his Meditations on a Theme of John Blow) to be “the best of me”.

In his two orations Samuel West struck just the right balance of eloquence and dignity of delivery; the chorus sang with tremendous commitment and skill, and Davis also secured very fine playing from the orchestra.

Following this performance speaker, singers and orchestra gathered together again in another London venue, and over the course of two days made a recording of the work for the Chandos label. The resulting disc is scheduled for release in October.

Alan Sanders



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