Omar Khayyám – The Ruba’iyat according to Edward Fitzgerald set to Music for Three Solo Voices, Chorus, and Orchestra in Three Parts
Catherine Wyn-Rogers (mezzo-soprano)
Toby Spence (tenor)
Roderick Williams (baritone)
BBC Symphony Chorus
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Recorded on 1 & 2 October 2005 and 18 February 2007 in The Colosseum, Watford
Reviewed by: Mike Wheeler
Reviewed: October 2007
CD No: CHANDOS
CHSA 5051 (3 CDs)
Duration: 2 hours 71 minutes
Bantock handles his vocal and orchestral forces with flair and skill, though I have to say that it all sounds a bit anonymous. Occasionally there are passages that seem to suggest an unlikely alliance between Bruckner and Delius, but while the music is attractive and skilfully put together, I haven’t yet got a picture of a distinctive Bantock style, beyond a rather generalised English late romanticism.
The New Grove article on Bantock observes that it is symptomatic of his approach that it was the Fitzgerald version he turned to, rather than anything closer to the original, but maybe it was as close as he was able to get. On the other hand, while he doesn’t resort to any kind of cheap, instant orientalism I never feel he really gets under the skin of the culture that produced the poems to the extent that I sense Holst or Szymanowski do in their Eastern-inspired works.
This is very much a view of the East from the vantage-point of the Edwardian choral festival; if this was a piece of architecture it would be classed as a folly. In the most telling comment in Lewis Foreman’s extensive notes, he describes reactions to the music during the recording sessions: “most of the performers saw it as the Hollywood epic of its time.” And that’s probably the best spirit in which to approach the piece – as a musical equivalent of something like “Ben-Hur” or “Quo Vadis”, rather than any deeper engagement with ancient Persian literature.
This has clearly been a labour of love, particularly for Vernon Handley whose devotion to Bantock’s music is well-known. Of the three main soloists, Catherine Wyn-Rogers is a radiant Beloved, Toby Spence an ardent Poet, and Roderick Williams conveys the gravitas of The Philosopher. The BBC Symphony Chorus and Orchestra sing and play with conviction, and the whole thing is captured in excellent sound.
Give it a try. It’s a curiosity, and you probably won’t want to devour it all in one go, but it usefully rounds out our picture of British music in the first decade of the twentieth-century.