Tuesday 22 August 2023

Unbound and Unleashed: Hubert Parry's cantata Prometheus Unbound gets the glorious first recording that it deserves

Hubert Parry: Prometheus Unbound, Blest Pair of Sirens; Sarah Fox, Sarah Connolly, David Butt Philip, Neal Davies, Crouch End Festival Chorus, London Mozart Players; Chandos
Hubert Parry: Prometheus Unbound, Blest Pair of Sirens; Sarah Fox, Sarah Connolly, David Butt Philip, Neal Davies, Crouch End Festival Chorus, London Mozart Players; Chandos

Drawing a remarkable line between Wagner and Elgar, Parry's glorious early cantata takes Shelley as its inspiration and in a fine performance makes a strong impression despite the complex philosophising of the text

The young Hubert Parry had ambitions to study with Brahms, but he needed to earn a living and study with Brahms wasn't feasible. So, Parry worked at Lloyd's Register and took lessons with the German pianist and composer Edward Dannreuther (1844-1905) who was resident in the UK from 1863 and who would remain Parry's mentor until his death. And in 1880, Dannreuther was the soloist in Parry's Piano Concerto in F sharp major.

Dannreuther venerated Brahms but was also a great champion of Wagner (he founded the London Wagner Society in 1872). In 1876 Dannreuther acquired tickets for the second Ring Cycle at Bayreuth; Parry went and also met Wagner. Parry's Wagnerian acquaintance continued in 1877 when the composer came to Britain for the London Wagner Festival. 

Unsurprisingly, Parry's commission for the Three Choirs Festival in Gloucester in 1880 rather took on Wagnerian overtones. He wrote a cantata, Prometheus Unbound, selecting texts from Shelley's four-act drama, intending to create not a dramatic work but a philosophical psychodrama. The performance in Gloucester on 7 September 1880 had its good moments and plenty of bad ones, it was under-rehearsed and the parts were riddled with errors. But Stanford was interested and his 1881 performance with Cambridge University Music Society had the advantage of being better rehearsed. Reactions were mixed, both positive and negative, the Wagnerian elements did not always go down well.

The work has an important position in English musical history, there was nothing like it before. Yet after its performance by the Bach Choir in 1899, Parry's Prometheus Unbound seems to have died a death. It was revived by the BBC in 1980, to mark the work's centenary, but it is only now that a full studio recording has been made.

Following on from his success with the recording of Parry's Judith [see my review], William Vann has returned to the studio with the Crouch End Festival Chorus and London Mozart Players for a recording of Parry's Scenes from Prometheus Unbound and Blest Pair of Sirens on Chandos with soloists Sarah Fox (soprano), Sarah Connolly (mezzo-soprano), David Butt Philip (tenor) and Neal Davies (bass-baritone).

Shelley's lyric drama Prometheus Unbound was published in 1820. Telling of the torments of the Greek mythological figure Prometheus, who defies the gods and gives fire to humanity, for which he is subjected to eternal punishment and suffering at the hands of Jupiter. Shelley was inspired by the Greek Prometheia, a trilogy of plays attributed to Aeschylus, of which only Prometheus Bound survives in tact.

For his cantata, Parry extracted three scenes from Shelley's play. The play, written for reading rather than dramatic production, deals with the events which lead to Jupiter's downfall and the release of Prometheus from his captivity, having been bound for 'his advocacy of mankind’s freedom; more immediately ominous for Jupiter, Prometheus has also learned, and refused to reveal, that the downfall of Jupiter will be brought about by his own child.' So, we have a scene for Prometheus (Neal Davies) in his captivity where he is approached by Mercury (David Butt Philip) and reassured by the Earth (Sarah Connolly). The second scene involves Jupiter (David Butt Philip) who is obsessed by the prophecy about his doom and questions a character called Demogorgon (sung by the Male Chorus) 'who cannot be fully seen or comprehended by Jupiter' who is led in by the Spirit of the Hour (Sarah Fox). Jupiter learns that his destiny is to sink into the abyss with Demogorgon, and Hercules frees (unbinds) Prometheus. The work ends with 'a hymn of jubilation on the part of the Spirits and Hours and a paean of elation at the new-found liberty of Prometheus.'

The disc provides and excellent background to the work as well as Jeremy Dibble's extensive synopsis (from which I have cribbed unmercifully). Now, here I have a big confession to make. Whilst I find Parry's music terrific, and will listen to this fine recording many times again, I can still not make head nor tail of the words or the drama. It seems to be a wonderfully poetic text, but Parry's selection lacks Wagner's dramatic edge and the intentions behind the drama remain obscure. 

Not to worry, because what we hear is striking enough. The music is not Wagnerian per se, you don't listen to it and think 'ah, Wagner', but Parry's approach to the creating of the piece, the way he handles the text, certainly evokes Wagnerian declamation rather than the oratorios of Mendelssohn and Dvorak. In fact, you can trace a direct line from this work to Elgar's mature oratorios.

We start with a prelude which seems to draw a line between Wagner and Elgar, and this leads into the long solo for Prometheus (Neal Davies). Here Parry writes in fluid declamation, large paragraphs rather than arias, the expressive fluidity is Wagnerian but the sound-world takes us directly to Elgar, and to The Dream of Gerontius. In fact, the work has many remarkable pre-echoes of this work and makes you wonder whether the one took over the role of the other. Prometheus is interrupted by two solos, first Mercury in the form of a vibrant solo from David Butt Philip that seems redolent of Wagnerian influences, and then mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly as Earth, warmly reassuring and with remarkable Elgarian pre-echoes. Part One ends with a remarkable complex ensemble for soloists and chorus.

Part Two begins with a David Butt Philip as Jupiter, in vibrant and wonderfully heroic, but this does not last as we have mysterious solo for Demogorgon, created by a hushed male chorus either unaccompanied or just with a rumbling bass. Jupiter's fall sees the work's most dramatic moment, followed by a lovely, reassuring solo from soprano Sarah Fox (Spirit of the Hour), and the work ends in terrific form with a long chorus, or perhaps a pair of choruses with an ensemble for the soloists in the middle. All philosophical complexity is forgotten here, and we are simply carried away by sheer engaging skill of the music, uplifting and glorious.

They follow this with one of Parry's best known works, his Milton setting, Blest Pair of Sirens, a glorious work, beloved of choral societies but again, Parry is channelling Wagner in some ways (lucidly set out in Jeremy Dibble's booklet essay). And here, Crouch End Festival Chorus really get to show their stuff. Throughout Prometheus they impressed in the big choral moments, but Blest Pair of Sirens really give them something to sink their teeth into.

The performances throughout are uniformly impressive. William Vann seems to have the knack of keeping Parry's music moving without ever making us feel rushed, and as a result the Wagnerian declamation and long paragraphs really do work, whilst chorus and orchestra make the big choral moments really sing.

Parry's Prometheus is full of terrific music, but I have a feeling that the complex philosophics of the piece will prevent it being taken up with any regularity. This is a shame, because what we have here is a remarkable piece of complex and highly emotional British music that looks forward to Elgar and yet stands up perfectly on its own. 

Charles Hubert Hastings Parry (1848-1918) - Scenes from Shelley's Prometheus Unbound (1880) [61:02]
Parry - Blest Pair of Sirens (1887) [9:41]

Sarah Fox soprano (Spirit of the Hour)
Dame Sarah Connolly mezzo-soprano (The Earth)
David Butt Philip tenor (Jupiter / Mercury)
Neal Davies bass-baritone (Prometheus)
Crouch End Festival Chorus (David Temple, musical director)
London Mozart Players (Simon Blendis, leader)
James Orford (organ)
William Vann (conductor)
Recorded Church of St Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead Garden Suburb, London NW11; 9 and 10 September 2022
CHANDOS CHSA5317 1CD [70:48]

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