Bantock was composing in an era that relished lush lyricism and rich harmonies, an era when drawing rooms resonated to the mystical sentimentality of Amy Woodforde-Finden and Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. Bantock's `Sappho' was written in that tradition, and possibly it is the highest example of that art-form. For anyone who likes their music lyrical and richly harmonic, `Sappho' is essential to their CD collection.
The poems which Bantock set to music are rich in pathos and unrequited love; the pain of the poetess is perfectly reflected in the music. A heart-wrenching example comes in `I loved thee once, Atthis ...' where the poetess says, `Thou lov'st another more than me ...' (the music, while depicting the intense pain felt by the poetess, is unutterably beautiful) and then she says three times, in reaction to that rejection, `Thou art nought to me ...' On the third time especially, the music depicts perfectly the torture that her soul is going through. Intense, wonderful, enthralling stuff.
Equal to this fabulous music is the performance. The orchestra and direction seem to me outstanding. Although the recording is crystal clear, at times I wonder whether the balance of volume between singer and orchestra is slightly in the orchestra's favour; I remain uncertain, but not overly concerned, about that. The orchestral playing, however, is divine, with a special mention for the woodwind section whose tone is round, seductive, sensitive and at times ethereal: hear, for example, the clarinet in that delightful oddity, `Bridal Song', or the out-of-this-world `Muse of the golden throne'.
I am leaving to last the singer, the mezzo Susan Bickley. I had not previously heard her and so this was a fabulous discovery for me. Not only does she have a voice of liquid gold that suits this music so well, she lives the music and the words so that the listener is experiencing the joy (what there is of it), the pain and the agony of the words and music with her. `Stunning' is the only word.
This recording must carry a health warning: there is a severe danger that the listener will be left a jellified wreck at the end of it. This happens to me - every time.
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