Composers: Sir Arthur Bliss
Compositions: Mary of Magdala, The Enchantress, Meditations on a Theme. by John Blow
Performers: Dame Sarah Connolly ms, James Platt b, BBC Symphony Orchestra & Chorus, Sir Andrew Davis cond
Catalogue Number: Chandos CHSA5242 (SACD)
Sir Andrew Davis and the BBC Symphony Orchestra continue mining the legacy of Sir Arthur Bliss. A previous instalment yielded treasure with his large-scale The Beatitudes. Here the finds are more modest. Most enriching are the Meditations on a Theme of John Blow from 1955. Based on the opening sinfonia of Blow’s The Lord is my Shepherd, the meditations are a series of variations illustrating aspects of Psalm 23. Bliss contrasts the idea of safety represented by the shepherd with the danger expressed in the line, “I will fear no evil”. This allows for a variety of moods, skilfully evoked by Bliss’s orchestration, and which culminate in the rapturous presentation of the theme.
Also of interest is The Enchantress, a ‘scena’ written in 1951 as a vehicle for contralto, Kathleen Ferrier, who tragically died of cancer two years later. The classical Greek scenario tells of a woman who casts spells to regain the affections of her lover. While Dame Sarah Connolly brings considerable ardour to the score, relishing its dark, intense subject, the work itself doesn’t catch fire.
Similarly, Mary of Magdala, a 1963 cantata, is a mixed bag. Connolly and bass James Platt give the encounter between Mary Magdalene and Jesus great energy and expression, but the score remains earthbound. Performances and engineering are all first class; it’s a pity some of these scores aren’t more engaging.