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Coventry honours Bliss’s intentions

05 October 2012

Roderic Dunnett on the homecoming of a 1962 commission for the cathedral


IT IS sometimes forgotten that Sir Arthur Bliss, whose large-scale work The Beatitudes has just been heard in the building for which it was commissioned, Coventry Cathedral, for the first time, was a significant composer of choral music.

Some of his best work in this sphere was secular, such as the charming River Music, his deeply poetic Pastoral, or the delicious Aubade for the Coronation. But, even late in life, with Shield of Faith, this former lion of the 1920s avant-garde was turning to focus on a range of sacred texts; while both the cantata Morning Heroes and especially the Meditations on a Theme by John Blow, which is an orchestral reflection on the 23rd Psalm, are deeply infused with humanistic or religious fervour and understanding.

One might expect The Beatitudes, written specially for the festival that marked the cathedral's consecration in 1962, to mark an apex in the composer's career, rather as the War Requiem, heard a few days later, did for Britten. Its world première gained notoriety when the cathedral authorities decreed, bewilderingly, that Bliss's labour of love should be heard not in the cathedral for which its splendour was designed, but in the cavernous Coventry Theatre near by. It inevitably lost much of its impact.

This autumn, as part of the 50th-anniversary celebrations, the work has been heard for the first time in its proper setting, performed with apt flair and panache by the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra with the vigorous Sheffield Philharmonic Choir, conducted by Paul Daniel, a former Coventry head chorister.

The evening, also recorded for BBC Radio 3, began propitiously, with A Survivor from Warsaw, a short work for narrator and male chorus by Arnold Schoenberg. That composer's name may strike terror in the hearts of many listeners, owing to the complexity and sometimes unapproachability of his serial composing techniques; but this short, acerbic work caught the audience's attention.

Written in just ten days in 1947, it deals with the horrors of the Warsaw ghetto and the Holocaust, drawing largely on memories of the survivors themselves. The lead role is taken by a narrator.

One of the superlative performers of this harrowing part was the BBC announcer Alvar Lidell, who caught the savagery and cruelty with unexpected bitterness. On this occasion, Omar Ebrahim, and another former Coventry boy soloist, brought his penetrating enunciation and searing dramatisation to this shivering memorial of a piece: "I have no recollection how I came to live in the sewers of Warsaw for so long a time. . ."

The savage silences and eerie dwelling on syllables prescribed by the composer only added to the unnerving feel. The conducting and playing were simply masterly; and the final male chorus, Sh'ma Yisrael ("Hear, O Israel"), was pleading and intense. From its very opening - a cauldron of eerie bubbling and awkward jabbing - this work was utterly mesmerising. It bears a message, and should be heard up and down the country.

Beethoven's Fifth Symphony - in a superbly refined, unshowy performance - fitted the bill perfectly. It was apt that this iconic, war-associated work followed the Schoenberg; and to attach it, attacca, immediately afterwards effected an emotional coup; although the Beethoven work suffered most from the echoes of the cathedral, so that the legato effect of modern instruments made this seem the antithesis of a period-instrument treatment.

But it was Bliss's The Beatitudes that the audience came to hear, above all. Was it a success? Partly.

Bliss interspersed Christ's injunctions from the Sermon on the Mount with exceptionally beautiful passages of poetry - Jeremy Taylor, George Herbert, Henry Vaughan, Dylan Thomas - rather as Britten incorporated passages from Wilfred Owen in his War Requiem - to produce a kind of aural montage. Such a glorious mélange has the potential to move deeply. Yet Bliss, Master of the Queen's Music from 1953 to his death in 1975, all too often scored his orchestra thickly, so that even his operas and other big works feel similar to his (rather good) film music.

This was apt for the "War in Heaven" orchestral passages that he incorporated to honour the new cathedral's patron saint; or for the blistering Turbae ("Crucify him") which erupt at the Ninth Beatitude ("Blessed are ye when men shall revile you, and persecute you"). But elsewhere, what one yearned for was delicacy of instrumentation, or the most exquisite woodwind filigree, not a perpetual pounding.

Because of the overscoring, Orla Boylan (a wonderful, full-blooded singer with an operatic background), replacing the more delicate Elizabeth Watts, and the fabulous English-song specialist Andrew Kennedy were forced to holler their lines; even Paul Daniel could not pare down the overwhelming orchestral sound, although he tried. It was as if Bliss were setting the military parts of Morning Heroes and of A Survivor from Warsaw into the bargain: in fact, Bliss's battering might have suited Schoenberg's grim text. But the Englishman's failure to differentiate sufficiently between Beatitude and poetic text seems almost inexplicable: an aspiration for unity that somehow missed the boat.

All was not lost; for there were scattered touches of genuine beauty; with it all reined in, the soloists' repeated patterns of almost Baroque decoration would sound truly melting, especially with Kennedy's beautiful tone and articulation. The BBC Philharmonic's double basses and cello soloist (not least in the Beethoven), its flutes, its leader, Yuri Torchinsky, and the trumpets and trombones were terrific.

Daniel's cool yet passionate approach, evident throughout, could be perfectly gauged from the controlled urgency of Dylan Thomas's "And Death Shall Have No Dominion": violent, and yet affecting.

Highest marks to Michael Foster and the Coventry 50th-anniversary team, for bringing these fiery Beatitudes - at last - home.

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