Delius - A Mass of Life
Bournemouth SO / David Hill
Naxos 8572861/2 Buy now
To witness a performance of Delius’s A Mass of Life, arguably his supreme creative achievement, is to look into the heart of the composer and his Nietzsche-inspired world. Moreover, this ravishing music, written between 1898 and 1905, represents Delius at the height of his powers, when musical ideas seemed to pour out of him at a time when he had finally learned to assimilate, in an entirely individual, not to say maverick manner, a confluence of modernist styles embracing Grieg, Wagner, Strauss, Charpentier and Debussy.
There is no doubt from the vivid opening choruses of Parts 1 and 2 of this recording (and what openings!) that the message of the work is a life-affirming one. There is a dynamic momentum to the tempi which perfectly evokes Zarathustra’s ruling passion, the Will of Man, and there is a richness to the orchestral sound which adds to the sense of muscularity. The chorus negotiate Delius’s often awkward vocal intervals with great skill and the intonation is virtually flawless. Just occasionally the sheer weight of the orchestral sound, which is quite forward on this recording (more so than Hickox), is apt to overwhelm the voices but this is a minor distraction.
Hill brings energy and élan to the third section, ‘In deine Auge’ (for me perhaps the most exhilarating section of Part 1), where the parallel with the end of Act 2 of Die Meistersinger is almost palpable and where the most unusual example of a Delius fugue (!) is given life, vigour and meaning.
Alan Opie, who has the lion’s share of the solo music in the work, is almost Wotan-like in his performances. From his first Nietzschean dance he is majestic and brings out of the score that vibrant, heady, Teutonic contemporaneity with which Delius had clearly become enthralled at this point in his career. Opie’s singing of what is effectively the role of Zarathustra has immense authority and his impressive range (up to high G) is ideal for Delius’s onerous vocal demands.
Andrew Kennedy, Catherine Wyn-Rogers and Janice Watson also offer fine lyrical interpretations of their solo parts and the choral accompaniments are allowed to intermingle subtly as an extension of the orchestra. The BSO are on fine form too, and special mention needs to be made of the haunting horn-playing in the introduction to Part 2 (‘On the Mountains’), a sound which sums up so much of Delius’s nature music.
This is a must for any Delius Liebhaber and, with the added bonus of the late Prelude and Idyll, a marvellous starting point for anyone new to Delius’s unique but compelling art. Jeremy Dibble