United Kingdom Elgar and Bliss: Emily Birsan (soprano), Ben Johnson (tenor), BBC Symphony Chorus, BBC Symphony Orchestra / Sir Andrew Davis (conductor), Barbican Hall, Barbican Centre, London, 12.5.2017. (AS)
Elgar: Variations on an Original Theme, Enigma, Op. 36
Bliss: The Beatitudes
Almost exactly two years ago Sir Andrew Davis conducted BBC forces in Bliss’s choral symphony Morning Heroes at a concert in the Barbican Hall. In my review of that performance I wrote that the work’s “expressive qualities are very strong and immediate; the musical invention is inspired and there are passages of great beauty as well as intense drama”. Though Bliss’s cantata The Beatitudes is perhaps not quite on the same level, it has similar attributes.
The work was commissioned as part of 1962 celebrations to mark the opening of the new Coventry Cathedral, which replaced the original medieval building destroyed during the Second World War Nazi blitz. The premiere took place very much in the shadow of another new work, one that was quickly to achieve renown, Britten’s War Requiem. The Beatitudes has however been rarely performed since its first performance.
The work is in 14 sections, five of which comprise the text of one or more of St Matthew’s nine Biblical Beatitudes. These are interspersed among settings of seven appropriate writings by such diverse authors as Henry Vaughan, George Herbert, Dylan Thomas and the Old Testament prophet Isaiah. There are two purely orchestral sections. The predominating mood might well have been entirely devotional, but Bliss deliberately provides elements of contrasting vigour through Herbert’s joyful celebration of Easter, Isaiah’s description of the Lord rising to “shake terribly the earth” and a depiction of the mob that reviles the subjects of the Ninth Beatitude.
As he has previously demonstrated, Davis is very much in tune with Bliss’s music, and he directed a performance that showed this work’s strength, vitality and masterful orchestration to impressive effect. The BBC Symphony Chorus sang magnificently and the orchestra was at its formidable best. The American soprano Emily Birsan is not as yet well-known this side of the Atlantic, but I’m sure we shall be hearing more of her lovely voice in the future. Ben Johnson, the fine tenor soloist, is of course well-known domestically through his BBC and ENO associations. His clear enunciation spotlighted the performance’s one deficiency: the diction of both Birsan and the chorus left a lot to be desired. The text was published in the programme, naturally, but if one focused on the performers for any length of time it was difficult to go back to the text and locate the passage that was then being sung. I hope that the BBC’s microphones were able to make the words clearer for those listening to the live Radio 3 broadcast. A commercial recording of The Beatitudes was due to take place at sessions following the concert.
Davis has conducted the Enigma Variations over a period of 40 years and more, and his credentials as an Elgarian are second to none among conductors of today. His performance followed traditional interpretations very faithfully. Every tempo, every point of phrasing, the orchestral textures – all were just as one expected them to be. Yet familiarity did not breed boredom, for Davis inspired a beguiling freshness and warmth in the playing.
What a pity it is that Sir Andrew’s commitments in Chicago, Melbourne and other foreign parts cause his performances in London to be so few and far between these days.