Delius’s A Mass of Life

A Mass of Life

Susan Bullock (soprano), Susan Bickley (mezzo-soprano), Nigel Robson (tenor) & Alan Opie (baritone)

The Bach Choir

Philharmonia Orchestra
David Hill

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 21 May, 2009
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Frederick Delius (1862-1934)Few musical works sum up their era more completely than “A Mass of Life”, Delius’s fashioning of Frederick Nietzsche’s philosophical tract “Also sprach Zarathustra” into a paean to human aspiration and attainment. Right from its completion in 1905 the work has not lacked for champions, not least among choral societies willing to tackle its frequently daunting intricacy of texture and harmony.

This performance found The Bach Choir in fine form, projecting the fugal writing (as in Part 1, Section 3) with the necessary level of articulation and elsewhere rendering the highly detailed vocal writing with an unusual degree of translucency. This in itself went a long way to evoking the mood of the work, even when the poetic sentiments are wilfully ambivalent or obscure (though having Edward Traverse’s unfailingly sympathetic translation included in the programme book was also beneficial).

The solo contributions are far from evenly distributed. As intelligently and sympathetically as Susan Bullock, Susan Bickley and Nigel Robson sang in their brief solos and ensembles, it was Alan Opie who carried the brunt of the singing – thereby confirming the narrative thread which runs right across the work as the ‘Zarathustra’ protagonist envisions and reaches ever deeper into the life-sustaining force. His account of ‘Zarathustra’s Nachtlied’ (Part 2, Section 6) can rank with the finest this near-operatic soliloquy has received and his overall contribution lacked for nothing in authority and insight.

Otherwise, the evening belonged to David Hill who invested the opening choruses of each part with tremendous impetus as well as sustaining the second of these through its relative longueur midway through. Moreover, he secured a high level of proficiency from the Philharmonia Orchestra – making much of the textural contrasts that inform some of Delius’s most opulent orchestral writing (its difficulties less remarked upon than that of the choir, but hardly less demanding). Sir Charles Groves’s 1988 Proms performance remains supreme in this regard but Hill’s responsiveness was not far behind.

“A Mass of Life” is hardly a work of our time, though its grounding in a very different human context offers pointers that can hardly be ignored. Hopefully a fair number of the gratifyingly large audience present will have tapped into something of its otherworldly and yet supremely human sentiment.

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