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Delius Mass of Life
on 12 June 2012
Both the previous reviewers are clearly knowledgable about the musical qualities of the "Mass", so I won't try to upstage them. Let me concentrate instead on the underlying philosophy of the piece. The text is, of course, taken from Nietzsche's "Thus Spake Zarathustra", and actually reflects Delius' own philosophy of life. Like Nietzsche, Delius eschewed organised religion, believing that man is a free spirit who must make his own way in the world, and that, for the "higher man" (Ubermensch) who is able to transcend his sense of obligation to a power greater than himself, the sea of possibilities is virtually infinite, and a source of ultimate joy. These sentiments are depicted in the wonderfully affirmative nature of much of Delius' music - for instance, in the barnstorming introductory section where chorus and orchestra blaze out a paean to the human Will, and the passion for life.
But few are they who have sufficient resolve to shake free the shackles that keep man in servitude, to reach out to the life of true freedom. The quest involves single-minded dedication and hardship, and the "higher man" must plough a lonely furrow, often mocked and despised by others. Here the music is more remote and contemplative. There are two beautiful orchestral interludes in which Delius depicts Zarathustra among the solitude of the mountains, or alone at dusk in meditative mood.
"A Mass of Life" was completed around 1905, although some passages date back to the 1890s. Listening to the music today, it is easy to forget its own milieu when audiences were steeped in the nineteenth century classics. No other English composer was writing music like this at the time. Scored for full orchestra, chorus and soli, and weighing in at almost one hour forty minutes, this is a substantial work by any standards, and reminds us that Delius was far more than a nature-painiting miniaturist.
This is the first recording of "A Mass" since the Chandos release several years ago, and the only other still readily available. It has the added advantage of coming at budget price, and will hopefully encourage those who only know Delius through his orchestral miniatures (exquisite though they are) to explore other aspects of this multi-faceted composer. Nor does "budget price" mean "inferior". Technically, this is a fine recording, with beautiful balance, and all the performers (Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra and Bach Choir under David Hill, and the four soloists - especially baritone Alan Opie)are at the top of their game. "A Mass of Life" is not easy listening, but does repay concentrated attention. As the work is sung in German, and the choral textures can be quite dense, it is advisable to refer throughout to the text provided in the liner notes which also comes with an English translation.
The "filler" on this 2-CD set is the Prelude and Idyll, composed in 1932, by which time Delius was blind and paralysed. The music is a reworking of passages from the little-known opera Margot la Rouge (1902), and was made possible with the help of his faithful amanuensis Eric Fenby (1906-97), and the poet Robert Nichols (1893-1944) who compiled the the text of the Idyll from the poetry of Walt Whitman. The setting, "Once I passed through a populous city", is usually performed separately from the Prelude, so here is a welcome opportunity to hear the two together, as (presumably) originally intended.