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
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
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
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.