BLISS Morning Heroes. Hymn to Apollo
It is over 40 years since the last recording of Bliss’s choral symphony Morning Heroes, written in 1930 as a memorial to his gifted brother, Kennard Bliss, killed at the Battle of the Somme. That thoroughly committed performance, made in 1974 by Charles Groves and the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus, is still very much worth having in its remastered version. However, this new recording is a revelation for its clarity (notably of the composer’s vivid orchestral palette and imaginative choral writing), coherence and sheer emotional intensity.
One of the most striking features of the work is the part of the narrator in the opening and penultimate movements. In 1974, the deep, sonorous tones of John Westbrook fulfilled this role majestically, but Samuel West is undoubtedly his equal for the hypnotic modulation and control of his recitation, especially in the extraordinarily haunting (not to say terrifying) concept of Wilfred Owen’s ‘Spring Offensive’ with timpani. Davis’s handling of the multi-movement structure of Bliss’s poetic anthology, which ranges from the deeply personal to the collective, is sensitively paced and shaped. The careful grading of ‘Hector’s Farewell’ is beautifully restrained to allow the narrator to shine through, while the different shades of melancholy mixed with those vivid sentiments of life and imminent death (which only war can engender) are powerfully conveyed, especially in the wonderful pastoral elegy for female voices, the ghostly setting of Whitman’s ‘By the bivouac’s fitful flame’ and the Bachian, passion-like final chorus, ‘Last night rain fell over the scarred plateau’. The orchestral tone-poem Hymn to Apollo, reworked in 1965 from the original version of 1926 and characterised by its clean contours and processional motion, serves as a fitting contrast and may well have been part of the cathartic process, as Morning Heroes most certainly was, to exorcise his nightmares and the sorrow of his brother’s death.