To witness a performance of Delius’s A Mass of Life, arguably his supreme creative achievement, is to look into the heart of the composer and his Nietzsche-inspired world. Moreover, this ravishing music, written between 1898 and 1905, represents Delius at the height of his powers, when musical ideas seemed to pour out of him at a time when he had finally learned to assimilate, in an entirely individual, not to say maverick manner, a confluence of modernist styles embracing Grieg, Wagner, Strauss, Charpentier and Debussy.
There is no doubt from the vivid opening choruses of Parts 1 and 2 of this recording (and what openings!) that the message of the work is a life-affirming one. There is a dynamic momentum to the tempi which perfectly evokes Zarathustra’s ruling passion, the Will of Man, and there is a richness to the orchestral sound which adds to the sense of muscularity. The chorus negotiate Delius’s often awkward vocal intervals with great skill and the intonation is virtually flawless. Just occasionally the sheer weight of the orchestral sound, which is quite forward on this recording (more so than Hickox), is apt to overwhelm the voices but this is a minor distraction.
Hill brings energy and élan to the third section, ‘In deine Auge’ (for me perhaps the most exhilarating section of Part 1), where the parallel with the end of Act 2 of Die Meistersinger is almost palpable and where the most unusual example of a Delius fugue (!) is given life, vigour and meaning.
Alan Opie, who has the lion’s share of the solo music in the work, is almost Wotan-like in his performances. From his first Nietzschean dance he is majestic and brings out of the score that vibrant, heady, Teutonic contemporaneity with which Delius had clearly become enthralled at this point in his career. Opie’s singing of what is effectively the role of Zarathustra has immense authority and his impressive range (up to high G) is ideal for Delius’s onerous vocal demands.
Andrew Kennedy, Catherine Wyn-Rogers and Janice Watson also offer fine lyrical interpretations of their solo parts and the choral accompaniments are allowed to intermingle subtly as an extension of the orchestra. The BSO are on fine form too, and special mention needs to be made of the haunting horn-playing in the introduction to Part 2 (‘On the Mountains’), a sound which sums up so much of Delius’s nature music.
This is a must for any Delius Liebhaber and, with the added bonus of the late Prelude and Idyll, a marvellous starting point for anyone new to Delius’s unique but compelling art.
-- Jeremy Dibble, Gramophone
DELIUS A Mass of Life. Prelude and Idyll1 • David Hill, Cond; 1Janice Watson (sop); Catherine Wyn-Rogers (mez); Andrew Kennedy (ten); 1Alan Opie (bar); Bach Ch; 1Bournemouth SO • NAXOS 8.572861-62 (2 CDs: 118:19 Text and Translation)
A Mass of Life is quintessential Delius, musically and existentially, composed over 1904–05 in the first great rush of his maturity. From the bounding affirmative choruses to the breathtakingly sustained nature contemplations, from the melancholy to the ecstatic, the Mass of Life traces and forecasts the gamut of Delian affect with a concision, fullness, and abundance he might rival but never achieve so comprehensively again. Unless I’ve missed something, this is but the fourth recording of the work since Beecham’s nonpareil 1952 account. Though its musical demands are daunting—if nowhere near as challenging as those of Mahler’s “Symphony of a Thousand,” with which it invites comparison—the primary bar to frequent performance is its text, drawn by Delius’s friend Ernst Cassirier largely from the Dance Songs of Nietzsche’s Also sprach Zarathustra. For those coming in late, one recalls the oft-quoted passage in Eric Fenby’s Delius as I Knew Him: “When, one wet day … he was looking for something to read in the library of a Norwegian friend … and had taken down a book, Thus Spake Zarathustra—a book for all and none—by one Friedrich Nietzsche, he was ripe for it. The book, he told me, never left his hands until he had devoured it from cover to cover. It was the very book he had been seeking all along, and finding that book he declared to be one of the most important events of his life. Nor did he rest content until he had read every work of Nietzsche that he could lay his hands on”—to which Fenby, a devout Catholic, adds—“and the poison entered his soul.” For listeners and performers today it may still be something of a jolt to find, in place of the supplicating Kyrie that the unfortunate term “Mass” leads one to expect, a glowingly charged hymn to the Will, “dispeller of need, my own necessity,” followed by Zarathustra’s brief praise of laughter (“My own laughter I pronounced holy”), succeeded by Zarathustra’s love duet with Life in a meadow filled with dancing girls, an archetypal encounter transpiring in a mythical dimension “beyond good and evil,” beyond place and time, crowned by the first, murmured, utterance of the Bell Song, the work’s central mystery. A Mass of Life may, of course, be enjoyed for its power and sensuous magic without reference to its text, but only to those nurtured on Nietzsche will it reveal its full import. Shrugging incomprehension of the text renders Benjamin Luxon’s Zarathustra, for Charles Groves (with the London Philharmonic Chorus and Orchestra), merely mellifluous, while Peter Coleman-Wright’s deadpan delivery for the late Richard Hickox—with the Waynflete Singers directed by today’s conductor, David Hill, and the Bournemouth Symphony Chorus and Orchestra—proves anesthetically workmanlike. When it appeared in 1997, I rated that reading, on Chandos, the best since Beecham’s (Fanfare 20:6). That honor goes now to the present offering. While Alan Opie does not efface memories of Bruce Boyce, for Beecham—whose delivery resonated from the nexus of Delius’s realization of Nietzsche—he teases the text gingerly, making a credible Zarathustra. In some numbers, Delius asks the soloists to share parts, with some of Zarathustra’s lines persuasively taken by Andrew Kennedy, and a portion of Life’s happily rendered by Janice Watson, though Catherine Wyn-Rogers’s beguiling, seductive Life recalls Monica Sinclair’s divinatory geste for Beecham. The choral work is beyond praise, though in Hill’s brisk approach the melting lyricism heard chez Beecham tautens and leaps.
Idyll is a late reworking of music from Margot la Rouge, composed in 1902 for the new opera competition offered by the music publisher Sanzogno. Though it failed to score and was not heard in Delius’s lifetime, it comes from the composer’s ripest years and contains gorgeous swaths of his richest utterance, which he salvaged in 1932, recomposing it to words by Whitman and making an extended love duet of it. Idyll has not lacked for vocally lustrous, persuasive performances submerging Whitman’s quaintness (“Behold me when I pass, hear my voice, approach, draw close, but speak not. Be not afraid of me”) in absolute conviction. Of major interest, the lovingly lingering 1981 account led by Eric Fenby—who took down the score from dictation by the blind, paralyzed Delius—features Felicity Lott and Thomas Allen (deleted Unicorn-Kanchana UKCD 2073). Meredith Davies’s still-available 1968 tilt at Idyll, with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, is made memorable by the divinatory partnership of Heather Harper and John Shirley-Quirk. In keeping with his go at the Mass of Life, Hill pushes the work a bit, spurring the impassioned moments to escalate from the pervasive tone of wistful elegy. Opie, as the anonymous man, is authoritatively resonant, in response to Janice Watson’s brightly edged soprano (touched by a bit of vibrato), with its gloriously amber lower register, buxomly filling the part of the nameless woman.
One caveat: In the headnote the title of the work is given per the album, but you will search the catalog of Delius’s works in vain for an orchestral Prelude. The work so designated is simply the first three minutes—an orchestral prelude, to be sure—of Idyll and has never, until now, been listed separately. The fake title generates a phantom work to bedevil buyers, scholars, and connoisseurs, and detracts from—rather than adding to—the program’s generosity.
Sound packs an immediate wallop making for occasional congestion. In the opening chorus, for instance, the leaping underlining of trombones and tubas becomes indistinct, overwhelmed by choral mass, and while one can pick out the glockenspiel, its function of festive accentuation is lost. In quieter passages, and in the capture of the vocalists, on the other hand, this upfront take is gratifyingly welcome. In German, Zarathustra’s pronouncements recall and parody the Lutheran Bible, in light of which the ostensibly stilted thee-ing and thou-ing of William Wallace’s singing translation—made for Beecham and used by him for all of his public performances (according to notes by Delius aficionado Lyndon Jenkins)—fall into place, if not quite into King James English. Whitman’s text is included.
In sum, a superb production and the grandest addition to the Delius discography in many years. Highest recommendation.
FANFARE: Adrian Corleonis