Thus spake Zarathustra, bellowing crudely

<i>A Mass Of Life</i> | Royal Festival Hall, London
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Why aren't concert-goers more curious? Not just about new music, but old as well. But then Delius has never been the biggest crowd-puller, for all that certain orchestral works such as On hearing the first cuckoo in spring and Brigg Fair have classic status.

Why aren't concert-goers more curious? Not just about new music, but old as well. But then Delius has never been the biggest crowd-puller, for all that certain orchestral works such as On hearing the first cuckoo in spring and Brigg Fair have classic status.

A Mass of Life was his most ambitious work, excepting his operas, and was given a rare revival to a rather small audience at the Festival Hall on Thursday by the London Choral Society and New London Orchestra, conducted by that champion of unfashionable British music, Ronald Corp. As well as a busy musician, Corp happens to be a clergyman, but A Mass of Life does not carry a Christian message, for it sets extracts, in the original German, from Nietzsche's Also sprach Zarathustra.

The programme pointed out that Delius chose the most poetic passages, which can have, for those so minded, Christian connotations, though this wasn't said as a selling point exactly. The dominant mood, certainly, is ecstasy, and the final word of the radiant conclusion is Ewigkeit - Eternity.

It's remarkable that Delius sustains a spirit of optimism in roughly a hundred minutes of music, though it is set off by touches of menace in one of Zarathustra's solos in Part Two, as well as a long and beautifully planned sleep sequence, and a penultimate section permeated with the tolling pulse of the midnight bell, one of the landmarks, also, in Richard Strauss's tone-poem.

Delius was a master of seductive orchestral scene-painting, and there are ravishing reflective preludes or interludes - for horns and woodwind as night falls at the end of Part One, and opening Part Two, where the instrumental reverie is shattered when the chorus plunges in with a call to arise. Delius pushes the sopranos high, even at the start of the whole work, and Corp's singers weren't quite loud enough or bang in the centre of the note. But the women alone sounded pleasing in their lighter "la-la" passages, which might have sounded a bit corny to jaded modern ears, but didn't.

Of the four soloists, the soprano Claire Rutter came into her own as she soared above everyone towards the end; the luscious mezzo, Jean Rigby, didn't have a very big part; nor did that urbane lyric tenor Martyn Hill. Most of the work fell to Zarathustra himself, the baritone Paul Whelan, a tall, thin, but amiable-looking fellow. A lot of his voice has a good rounded sound, though he wasn't always happy on top notes; but worse, he tended to heave phrases rather than shape them, and bellow crudely, as if he were playing a giant in Wagner's Das Rheingold. Still, a lot of people didn't seem to agree with me, because he got a great round of applause at the end.

Comments