Berlioz and Bliss are not normally two composers that one might readily find together but Friday night’s concert was an intelligently conceived programme that drew together themes of love and loss, sacrifice and suffering through the result of war. The main focus was Morning Heroes, Arthur Bliss’s cathartic response to the Great War, that honours its dead, as well as fallen soldiers in general, via an anthology of texts (an obvious source later for Britten) that recall the Trojan wars, the American Civil War and the Somme where his own brother died. First performed in 1930 at the Norfolk and Norwich Festival, this “Symphony for orator, chorus and orchestra” has never become mainstream choral repertoire and performances today are relatively few in number. Indeed, the Novello website indicates just six UK performances since 2001. Even after its Proms première in 1968, Diana McVeigh observed in The Times that the work is “more referred to than performed of late”.

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

So Friday’s account of Morning Heroes was a rare treat and one in which Andrew Davis did much to demonstrate that Bliss is master of the big theatrical gesture. In this he was amply helped by a polished BBC Symphony Orchestra and a well-prepared BBC Symphony Chorus who responded superbly to the demanding choral writing in “The City Arming” (Walt Whitman) and who sang, as instructed in the score, “with great spirit and elation”. The work’s novelty is in its use of a narrator and here Samuel West efficiently dispatched “Hector’s Farewell to Andromache”. On occasion his delivery in this opening sequence, drawn from the Iliad, could have been more measured but his rendition of “Spring Offensive” was utterly compelling not least for the fact that Bliss chillingly underscores Wilfred Owen’s text for bass drum and two timpani.

Despite the excellence of the orchestral playing and persuasive choral singing, with a convincing top C from the sopranos at the end of “The Heroes”, this work is weighed down with the sheer volume of words. With so few opportunities to reflect and absorb these, Bliss gives the listener a difficult task and at times this hour-long work can seem unrelenting. Fortunately, Davis kept this performance alive with tempi that were never indulgent, and the concluding chorus “Dawn on the Somme” (whose words by Robert Nichols supply the work’s title) was an emotional high watermark, its poignancy memorably reinforced by solo viola.

It was music by Berlioz from a century earlier that occupied the first half of the programme. La mort de Cléopâtre, from 1829 was Berlioz’s third attempt to win the coveted Prix de Rome – which he did the following year with another cantata that is now all but forgotten. Taking the lead was Sarah Connolly who drew so much tension and drama from the closing pages that her self-styled label as a lyric singer rather than a dramatic mezzo seems inappropriate, or at least unnecessarily modest. Whether evoking shame, fury or despair she was always noble (even when stamping her foot) and sang with a fine line through its alternating recitative and arioso-like sections. The orchestra was on terrific form with wonderfully doleful woodwind in Méditation and superbly disciplined double basses in their heaving accompaniment to Cleopatra's final words.

The concert began, however, with music for another Queen (Dido) in The Royal Hunt and Storm that opens Act IV of Les Troyens, Berlioz's epic tale of the Trojan war which was finally completed in 1858. Off stage horns, the luxury of three timpanists and a brief choral outburst (“Italie”) added to the thrill of this performance that unfolded in cinematic style under Andrew Davis’s batonless and exhilarating direction.  

****1