Separated by 63 years, two works by former Master of the King’s Music and Master of the Queen’s Music were given at the Barbican by the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. Elgar’s Variations on an Original Theme (“Enigma”) from 1899 was an overnight success, while Bliss’s The Beatitudes has only occasionally surfaced in performances since its ill-fated première in 1962. On Friday, Sir Andrew Davis, who two years ago conducted Bliss’ oratorio Morning Heroes with these same forces, gave an admirable and thoroughly committed account, which might be enough to prompt a reassessment of The Beatitudes now that it has also just been recorded with Chandos.

Sir Andrew Davis © Dario Acosta
Sir Andrew Davis
© Dario Acosta

Scored for orchestra, chorus with soprano and tenor soloists, the work was planned as one of three commissions (Bliss, Britten and Tippett) to celebrate the opening of the newly rebuilt Coventry Cathedral, replacing the medieval structure destroyed during an air raid in the Second World War. When Britten’s War Requiem needed more rehearsal time in the cathedral, The Beatitudes was elbowed out for a performance in the unsuitable Belgrade Theatre. Only in 2012, a half a century later, was the work first heard at the cathedral.

Like Morning Heroes (and Pastorale), The Beatitudes comprises an anthology of texts and their selection by Christopher Hassall places the work midway between the sacred and secular; settings of three metaphysical poets (Henry Vaughan, George Herbert and Jeremy Taylor), Dylan Thomas and words from Isaiah formed a vigorous foil to the supplicatory Beatitudes of St Matthew. Bliss' choral writing is thoroughly English and distinctively personal, yet here an antagonistic posturing dominates. Dense orchestration and challenging vocal lines too often overwhelm a work that attempts to reconcile modern and pastoral idioms.

The BBC chorus had been well-drilled, and in the constantly shifting tonalities of “The Call” they made the most of its awkward material, but couldn’t quite hide a sense of strain in “Rise heart” – Herbert’s joyful celebration of Easter. But more beautiful and secure tone was to be heard in “I got me flowers” and Isaiah’s assertion that “The lofty looks of man shall be humbled" was intensely gripping.

Soloists Ben Johnson and Emily Birsan impressed, not least in their bright-timbre but in the apparent ease with which they dispatched their unforgiving vocal lines: “O blessed Jesu” is littered with ungrateful leaps which both singers took in their stride. It was Bliss’ melismatic writing for the nine beatitudes, where solo voices dovetail with the chorus, which was the most effective.

Earlier, Davis had delivered a compelling account of Elgar’s Enigma Variations with well-judged tempi and playing of great beauty and polish. In “Dorabella” the violins were superb in their delicate murmurings and they burst upon us with razor-sharp ensemble for the bulldog in G.R.S. A mellifluous clarinet charmed the ear in the “Romanza” and it was good to see the timpanist (following tradition) using coins, rather than sticks. Elsewhere there was playing of warmth and strong commitment.