BANTOCK: Overture to a Greek Tragedy. The Wilderness and the Solitary Place. Pierrot of the Minute. The Song of Songs (The Second Day, The Third Day, The Fifth Day).
Elizabeth Connell, soprano; Kim Begley, tenor; William Prideaux, baritone; Royal Phiharmonic Orch/Vernon Handley, cond.
HYPERION CDA 67395 (F) (DDD) TT: 77:58

This is the sixth in a series of CDs devoted to the uneven but fascinating—and sometimes epical—music of Sir Granville Bantock (1868-1946), for which we have Hyperion’s late founder Ted Perry to thank. Once more Vernon Handley conducts the Royal Philharmonic in inimitable performances, thrillingly recorded by Tony Faulkner. What possible treasures still repose in the composer’s vast unrecorded output we may never discover given the lamentable death of Perry, the label’s father and artistic conscience.

Rather than recapitulate details of Bantock’s life and the earlier recordings (beginning with the second of them, reviewed by R.E.B. in 1999 during the first year of this website on line), let me suggest you consult the Index and speed-read (or slowly as all writers hope) what already has been written, and let this notice concentrate on No. 6, recorded April 1-2 of last year. The major component is excerpts from “a dramatic rhapsody,” The Song of Songs, a three-hour creation in five sections “for six solo voices, chorus and orchestra” (with staging instructions included in the score). Bantock began it in 1912 but didn’t finish the entire piece until 1926. It had few performances and fewer broadcasts, mostly of excerpts, which is what we have on this disc—41:00 of them—but only the complete Second of Five “Days,” following Biblical precedent (although Bantock eroticized the text), along with portions of the Third Day, and love music from the Fifth.

The problem, a major one sorry to say, is the two principal singers, who have oratorio temperaments and worn voices. Elizabeth Connell is no sexier or vocally opulent as the Shulamite than a veteran church soprano, while tenor Kim Begley barks almost everything louder than mezzo-forte. This is all the sadder from a firm that devoted itself to the complete Lieder of Schubert with international singers of remarkable artistry. Handley tries but cannot save the day, although it is entirely within his purview had the vocalists been of suitable temperament, and age. There are passages of lovely music—Strauss and Liszt rate homage—but they needed help.

The 18-minute Overture to Greek Tragedy (“Oedipus at Colonus”) predated first sketches for The Song of Songs by a year, and was dedicated to Sibelius, who in turn had dedicated his Third Symphony to Bantock. The Witness and the Solitary Place came sixth in a retelling of the Christ- story dating from the 1890s, a score that originally ran to 700 pages which Bantock called a “Festival Symphony in 10 Parts.” In 1900 he edited this down to a five-part “symphony,” from which the aria on this disc enjoyed a moderate life as a concert encore. Whether “its feeling of an exotic dance marked by tambourine and idiosyncratic scoring for winds and harps” (in the annotator’s words) could have charmed one is moot: Elizabeth Connell sings it in the same chaste, worn manner of her Song of Songs arias. Pierrot of the Minute, finally, was composed in 1908, and within a year rivaled Elgar’s First Symphony in popularity. It is comic yet not quite characterful, which Malcolm Arnold’s Tam o’Shanter Overture succeeded in being several decades later. The performance is vivid but the music fades quickly from the memory.

I wish it were possible to like Bantock Volume 6 as much as the others, but vocal casting blocks pleasure. The question is: Will we ever have more, now that Ted Perry’s gone?

R.D. (January 2004)