The Beatitudes by Arthur Bliss – review

Coventry Cathedral

Events to mark this year's 50th anniversary of the consecration of Coventry Cathedral have already included a performance of the most famous work composed for the occasion. But Britten's War Requiem was by no means the only commission in 1962; new works from Lennox Berkeley and Wilfrid Mellers, as well as Michael Tippett's second opera, King Priam, were first performed in the city, and there was also a cantata from the then Master of the Queen's Music, Arthur Bliss, which was composed specifically to be performed in the new cathedral.

Yet to Bliss's dismay the first performance of The Beatitudes was severely compromised by the extra rehearsals required for the War Requiem. Instead taking place in the space for which it was conceived, the premiere was moved to the hopelessly cramped space of the Coventry theatre, with a portable Hammond organ substituted for the state-of-the-art cathedral instrument Bliss had written for. Later the same year The Beatitudes was performed in a cathedral acoustic, as part of the Three Choirs festival in Gloucester, but until this performance, with Paul Daniel conducting the BBC Philharmonic and the Sheffield Philharmonic Choir as part of the 50th-anniversary festival, it had never been heard in Coventry Cathedral itself.

Christopher Hassall's text interleaves Christ's words from the Sermon on the Mount with a brief passage from the Old Testament Book of Isaiah and verses by Dylan Thomas and three 17th-century metaphysical writers, Henry Vaughan, George Herbert and Jeremy Taylor. The tone of the settings ranges from the sweetly supplicatory to the fiercely aggressive. There are reminders that Bliss was a highly accomplished film composer – the music seems to lapse a bit too often into brassy, martial posturing. Those are the least convincing parts of his score, and it's the melismatic writing for the soprano and tenor soloists (Orla Boylan and Andrew Kennedy here), and the way in which their voices dovetail with the chorus, commenting on or embroidering the other that is much more striking.

Yet Bliss's choral writing manages to be thoroughly English and distinctively personal at the same time; it's never quite like anyone else's, just as the whole work is more muscular and psychologically complex than its title might suggest. Daniel's performance – the second half of a concert that had also included Schoenberg's A Survivor from Warsaw (with Omar Ebrahim as the narrator) and Beethoven's Fifth Symphony – brought out all that distinctiveness, though despite all the fuss it's clear that Coventry Cathedral is not the best place to hear music of any kind of subtlety or complexity.

• To be broadcast on Radio 3 on Thursday.


Andrew Clements

The GuardianTramp

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