Wednesday 2 January 2008

CD's I'm listening to

Over the holiday period our principal listening has been Granville Bantock's Omar Khayam and Thomas Tallis's complete oeuvre, recorded by Alistair Dixon and La Chapelle du Roi.

Omar Khayam is a 3 CD set from Chandos as part of their on-going series of discs of Bantock's music. So far the Chandos discs have generally been compilations of smaller items, though they have included the very striking Sappho song cycle and a couple of movements from the Song of Songs. But Bantock was notable for his large scale works and his complete setting of Fitzgerald's translation of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayam is a case in point.

Using chorus, orchestra and 3 soloists Bantock expansively sets the text, creating gorgeous textures and hinting at the music by other contemporaries such as Rimsky Korsakov and Richard Strauss. This is wonderful music, but it is in no sense advanced. The work was written in pieces between 1908 and 1910, but rarely gets beyond, say, Elgar. Vernon Handley, the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus and soloists Catherin Wyn-Rogers, Toby Spence and Roderick Williams do the work complete justice. This is wonderful music to listen to, gorgeous, luscious and full of textures. But it is relatively undramatic, perhaps Bantock intended this but in a work this long (171 minutes in total), I think that a little more dramatic structure might have helped.

My other complaint is that the work sounds very firmly as if it comes from Edwardian England, it is unmistakeably Bantock. Despite some nice touches of local colour in the orchestration, it does not really conjure up the gorgeous east.

Again, that might be deliberate as Bantock was interested in the poem's main theme, the transience of existence, the underlying message being Waste not the hour.

I think, perhaps, that we need to get to know the work more. That its richness rather hides its subtlety. But though reviewers have generally been very positive, Andrew Clements in the Guardian (here) is far more temperate, describing it as a sumptuously brocaded if rather staid score.

The Tallis set is entirely different. For a start, the majority of the 9 discs are performed by just the singers of La Chapelle du Roi. The group varies in size according to need but there are generally 16 to 24 singers (expanding to fit the 40 part motet). The music is organised chronologically so that we start with the early stuff and the amazing late Henry VII period. This is followed by the beautiful but austere Edward VI period, when Tallis was concerned to suit his music to the predominating taste of the reformers, where words were paramount. Just think of If ye love me to get a feel for what he could do.

Then Mary Tudor re-appears and we have the late flowering of Latin complexity, including the mass, Missa Puer Natus est Nobis. Finally the full panolply of the Elizabethan works, including of course his 40-part motet. The set (10 discs in all) is a remarkable achievement and whilst you could pick individual items which could be different. Overall I find the performances beautiful and convincing, definitely a set to be played over and over.

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