This is something of a dream come true. The fact that the issues are currently collected in a reduced price box set suggested that Hyperion's Bantock series has come to an end, and I had hence not at all expected ever to hear Bantock's masterpiece, Omar Khayyám, in full, and at least not in a performance as good as this one. On a cautionary note, I still recommend that those who are unfamiliar with Bantock seek out some of the Hyperion releases (in particular the disc containing the Celtic and Hebridean symphonies and the one containing the orchestral song cycle Sappho) before delving into this one - but this is still an essential acquisition. Another cautionary note is that these are hybrid CDs, and I have only heard them on a standard system.
Omar is a huge secular cantata full of opulence, exoticism and escapist fairy-tale magic, requiring vast forces - it is, in short, too big and unwieldy and still unfashionable to stand any hopes for entering the repertoire in any way - even though the exoticism only rarely suggests kitchiness. The language and textures are lavish, voluptuous and luxuriant, superficially reminiscent of Strauss or Delius, but in the end more indebted to Tchaikovsky or the French late romantics (d'Indy, Chausson, Pierné) - there are even touches of impressionism there. Particularly impressive is Bantock's deployment of the choral forces, often more as part of the orchestration than as a separate entity (which also implies that the text sung by the choir seems less important in itself than as a means to textural effects). The level of invention and imagination is consistently high, but Omar also manages to form a coherent whole (particularly through the inventive, recurring use of a wonderfully sorrowful melody of `Waste not your hour'); and especially effective is the manner in which Bantock weaves various themes together to create novel, imaginative forms, textures and musical effects.
It is impressive from the start, with a majestic, noble and poetic prelude developing into a surging climax. The vocal lines for the three main character, the Philosophoer, the Poet and the Beloved are lavishly treated, bathed in glittering orchestral radiance, almost but not quite operatic. Real drama is given to the Philosopher, who over the course of the work moves closer and closer to the Poet (in terms of text but also musical material). For the most part, the music moves between reflection on the transience of life, the intense pain of parting, melancholic wistfulness and golden-hued, glittering longing and hope. Part I is, overall, uniformly gorgeous, culminating in a radiant and riveting `Waste not your Hour', but I have to admit that some of the moments in part 2 are less inspired, although there are some magnificent writing here as well, especially the utterly moving conclusion. Part III opens with a lyrical, solemn and sorrowful prelude. The amphorae scenes are particularly impressive and variegated, culminating in a swirling, wild dance. All the more effective is the tender and regretful music that follows, and the glitteringly atmospheric epilogue.
Catherine Wyn-Rogers sings with commitment and sensitivity, although there is a slight tendency to wobble at times - not a major problem, I hasten to add. I find nothing to complain about with respect to Toby Spence or Roderick Williams. Handley's conducting is thoroughly engaging and committed as well, although he sometimes seems a little too relaxed in some parts of Part II (some of Bantock's relatively complex use of rhythm seems to go amiss, but it might just be my imagination) - but perhaps only in order to be able to gather more momentum towards the magnificent conclusion. Still, this is overall a fabulous performance, and the orchestra and chorus respond gloriously throughout. The only real objection, if any, is that the work is not quite complete - there are some not entirely minor cuts. Yet Chandos deserves all the praise it can get for the project and the results. Really, truly a magnificent release.