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Sir Arthur BLISS (1891-1975)
Morning Heroes (1930) [55.33]
Hymn to Apollo (original version, 1926) [9.26]
Samuel West (orator)
BBC Symphony Chorus and Orchestra/Sir Andrew Davis
rec. Fairfield Halls, Croydon, 16-17 May 2015

Bliss described Morning Heroes unequivocally as a “symphony”, but the elements of symphonic form are far less evident than in – for example – Holst’s Choral Symphony of a few years before. The piece has more parallels with other choral works on the theme of war such as Vaughan Williams’s Dona nobis pacem and Britten’s War Requiem, parallels that are more evident through the use of texts by Walt Whitman and Wilfred Owen (although different poems from those employed in those later works). Sir Andrew Davis, moving the music purposefully forward, does however emphasise the sense of unity that pervades what might seem a dangerously disparate work, with results that bind the music together more successfully than Sir Charles Groves managed to do in his pioneering recording of 1975. With Groves one has the sense of a series of generally unrelated movements — it is not until near the end that any of the earlier music is recapitulated — effective in themselves but not necessarily cohering into a unified experience. Here Davis, assisted by a recorded balance which clarifies some of Bliss’s more resonantly scored passages, brings out an onward sense of gathering doom that carries us forward from one movement to the next.

The opening movement is perhaps the most difficult of all to which to bring a sense of unity. After an ominous prelude — where Groves extracts even more excruciating agony than Davis from the high discordant violin phrases at the climax — we are presented with a spoken narration of a section from Homer’s Iliad with a generally subservient orchestral accompaniment. It was not perhaps, regarded in retrospect, the happiest of texts for Bliss to have chosen. Andromache beseeches Hector to forego a battle in which she sees that he will inevitably be slain, but his only response is to comment rather unfeelingly on what it will feel for her to be a widow and to express his hopes that his infant son will in due course follow in his father’s footsteps. Not altogether surprisingly Andromache finds this spurious reasoning of small comfort, and at the end we are told that she returns to her house “letting fall big tears”. Bliss underpins this with music that is sympathetic rather than effective in its own right, and an instruction in the score tells the speaker that except at certain indicated points they should not seek to ally their delivery of the text to any specific points in the music – which undermines any possibility of illustrating the words in greater detail - as, for example, one might find in a film score.

Bliss curiously describes his speaker as an “orator”, but it is clear that he expected an actor in the part in order to bring out the inherent drama behind the words. The first performance of the work I ever heard featured Richard Baker as the orator, and with the best will in the world despite his sensitive delivery he could not provide this in ideal measure; that performance was at one time available on a BBC Radio Classics CD, long deleted. In his recording Groves employed John Westbrook, a stalwart of ‘melodrama’ recordings for EMI at this period; he also recorded the Vaughan Williams Oxford Elegy. Westbrook had the sort of voice that was almost ideal for this sort of role, but his Hector was not above ranting in the louder passages. In a later recording Brian Blessed undertook the role, and his sense of character comes over keenly; but it is not entirely his fault that Hector becomes almost a second cousin to Voltan in Flash Gordon at moments – his voice is simply too memorable in its own right. Here West is rather less forceful than either Westbrook or Blessed, but he has a keen eye and ear for detail and I find his assumption of the part less ‘hectoring’ (forgive the pun or not, as you please) than his rivals’. He does not always enter at exactly the points Bliss specifies in the score, but he always manages to finish at the same time as the orchestra so that there are no unseemly pauses – I presume the minor amendments were determined by trial and error at rehearsals.

The second movement brings the entry of the chorus in a setting of one of Walt Whitman’s poems describing the war fever that gripped New York at the outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861. There is a close parallel here to Vaughan Williams’s similar use of a different Whitman poem in his Dona nobis pacem written some years later, and both composers made a magnificent job of conjuring up the unthinking patriotism as well as the grief that attended the outbreak of war. If anything Bliss is even more successful than Vaughan Williams, more abrasively discordant and with a series of twisted march themes that anticipate in some ways his score for Things to come. Here the BBC Singers are more confident in their negotiation of some fiendishly tricky vocal lines than Groves’s Liverpool forces, and the soprano attack on the top B at the word “struck” is thrillingly unbridled. The sopranos also cover themselves with glory in their contribution to the third movement, a gentle Chinese poem about a grieving spouse awaiting the return of her husband. The second Whitman poem which also forms part of this movement, scored largely for men’s voices only, is less successful — it seems to need more room to expand, some of the setting of the phrases almost mechanical — but Davis here manages to avoid the dangerous impression of a lightweight jogtrot in the opening wind figure in a manner that Groves does not entirely obviate.

The fourth movement of the symphony is, I am afraid, a definite weakness in this score, and not even Davis’s clear exposition of the music can persuade me otherwise. Bliss’s text again comes from Homer’s Iliad, this time in the translation by Chapman that so inspired Keats – and I really cannot see why or how this should have been. The words continually seem to get in the way of the musical lines, and Bliss seems moreover to find himself at a loss to portray the glorification of Achilles and the heroes which the poetry enshrines. The best section of this movement is the opening passage for orchestra alone, a terrifying depiction of mechanical war which owes much to Holst’s Mars but transcends even that score in sheer bludgeoning menace. Davis revels in this, bring out the growling bass lines more effectively than Groves; and both orchestra and chorus are most exciting in the whiplash rhythms that follow, anticipating in many ways Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast which was to come a year or so later.

The setting of Wilfred Owen’s Spring Offensive which follows is placed almost entirely in the hands of the “orator” who delivers the verse unaccompanied except for multiple pairs of timpani. Reactions to individual performances here will depend entirely on the listener’s reaction to the speakers involved, with Blessed the more obviously histrionic and Westbrook too letting forth a shout as the troops come under fire and then dying down almost to a whisper at the words “God caught them even before they fell”. West here is rather more conversational, but no less moving for that. I cannot help but feel that Bliss’s indication that the orchestra should enter under the final line of the poem is a mistake – it splits the final thought off from the rest – but that is what he wrote, so we must live with it.

The final movement, Dawn on the Somme, brings back some of the themes from earlier parts of the score (we have already heard Hector’s theme return during the fourth movement) but here is one of the few points where Groves’s recording scores over Davis. The thudding timpani from Spring Offensive come thundering back over the final notes of the chorus, and Groves makes this into a positively electrifying moment. Here Davis’s timpani register with considerably less force; and although this is all part of the conductor’s attempts to bind the score together symphonically without highlighting individual sections, I miss the sheer frisson of the EMI recording. Otherwise the Chandos engineering is a considerable improvement on the EMI – not only clearer but also more naturally balanced, with the chorus and orchestra correctly assuming equal importance. The Chandos documentation, with complete texts in English and notes also in French and German, is also exemplary, bound into the gatefold sleeve. The original CD release of the Groves came with the text (in very small type) but no coupling; at one time it was released as a pairing for Sir Simon Rattle’s War Requiem, but it now appears only to be available as part of a 24-disc compendium of recordings by Groves from which the texts have disappeared.

Here we are given a coupling, and a substantial one too: the first ever recording of the original version of Bliss’s Hymn to Apollo, another work written in the aftermath of the First World War and sharing many of the same concerns as Morning Heroes. The revisions which Bliss made some forty years later were not major — a cut of twenty-one bars, and some reduction of the orchestration — and despite my reservations about the modern habit of resurrecting scores in the form about which the composers themselves have had second thoughts, it is a good idea with this work to let us have Bliss’s initial ideas forged while the memories of the war were still very fresh in his mind. Bliss himself recorded the work for Lyrita in its revised version, and Chandos themselves have an available version conducted by Vernon Handley, so we are at least given an opportunity to compare the two scores – the earlier one more acutely agonised, the later one with smoother surfaces as of memory revisited in reflection rather than immediately experienced. And, as I hope I have made clear, the major work on this disc is a masterpiece despite its occasional failings; and as a version of Morning Heroes, it is a most satisfactory replacement or supplement for the Groves recording.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

Previous review: John Quinn (Recording of the Month)



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