Like poppies sprouting from ravaged farmland, the centenary of the Battle of the Somme has yielded a crop of music. Some healthy plants, some weeds. Frederick Delius's Requiem was the culminating point of last night's commemorative concert with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales conducted by Adrian Partington. Delius's Requiem was dismissed in its own time, even by his strongest advocates. We can hear why: it's not pastoral, not Requiem-like and quite un-English. In the triumphant confidence that followed Britain's victory over Germany, Delius's vision of Nietzsche must have seemed a bizarre anachronism. Perhaps now we've seen what happened to Europe, and to Britain, in the century that followed, we can better appreciate its quirky iconoclasm. Partington let the piece unfold on its own terms. The Mass of Life fits more easily into grand choral tradition, but the Requiem is wilder and crazier, less prolix and more focused. Although there are several classic recordings of Delius's Requiem, this one comes at a time when we can better appreciate its context, and value its individuality. Mark Stone sang with forceful conviction, yet also managed to suggest the wayward edginess that makes this piece so individual. With its shimmering chromatics, the finale suggests a Debussy New Dawn, reminding us how cosmopolitan Delius really was. Even the instrumentation harks forward - celeste, harp and glockenspiel. Perfectly appropriate, given that this Requiem is more about the future than the past. Incidentally, check out Mark Stone's recordings of the complete songs for voice and piano HERE and HERE.
Also on Partington's BBC NOW concert, Butterworth's A Shropshire Lad Rhapsody, Albert Roussel Pour une fête de printemps, Herbert Howells' beautiful Elegy for String quartet, Viola and Orchestra. (Philip Dukes, soloist). and the slow second movement of Gordon Jacob's First Symphony, written in memory of his brother, killed in 1916. Jacob (1895-1984) conducted this movement himself at the Three Choirs Festival in 1934. It's hard to judge anything by a fragment like this, but the piece is worth hearing as part of a wider programme in memorial. Howells'Elegy, for example, sounds even more distinctive in comparison.
Also yesterday a concert of choral songs by Parry, Gurney, Holst, W Denis Browne, Cras and Reger with the BBC Singers conducted by Paul Brough. Two new pieces too, Colin Skinner's Before Action, setting a poem by William Noel Hodgson,who was killed on the first day of the battle of the Somme, and David Bednall's Three Songs of Remembrance. The BBC also re-broadcast earler concerts such as Arthur Bliss Morning Heroes -with Andrew Davis (my review here) and Cecil Coles Behind the Lines with Martyn Brabbins (my review here)
Tonight the BBC broadcasts Iain Bell's In Parenthesis. You can watch the full video here on Opera Platform. Everything about this new opera presses the right buttons - it's topical, it's patriotic, since it sets a poem by the Welsh composer David Jones who fought in the First World War, and it's non-demanding, despite the subject. Guaranteed to attract funding and commissions. Except that, as music and as drama it's not very good. Jones's poem is mystical and elegaic . Could one do justice setting The Waste Land as narrative? The opera doesn't much engage with insight, but unfolds in a series of numbers, much like a musical. A bit like Oh what a Lovely War without punch. It does however do what it says in the title "in parenthesis" , nice punctuation but blank between the brackets.