Delius A Mass of Life
The quasi-liturgical title of Delius’s 1905 Eine Messe des Lebens lays down a challenge. The work is a large-scale setting of sections of Nietzsche’s Also sprach Zarathustra, an atheist’s hymn to life, love, the human will and freedom from the fear of death. The music ranges widely from full-blooded choral exultation to noble philosophical meditation, and includes some episodes, such as the drowsy midday idyll in Part 2, which no other composer could have brought off so perfectly.
David Hill’s impressive new recording with his Bach Choir (in the original German) boasts confident, ardent choral singing and orchestral playing, and a strong solo team – even if Alan Opie, representing the prophet Zarathustra, perhaps makes his points with too much Wagnerian declamation at the expense of line. The recording gives the voices a bloom that isn’t shared by the orchestra, but achieves a clear overall balance. To my ears, this issue doesn’t quite match its Chandos competitor, with the late Richard Hickox conducting the same orchestra in the same hall. But listeners tempted by Naxos’s bargain price into exploring this work won’t be disappointed.
As fill-up, there’s the Prelude and Idyll from 1932, which fits bits salvaged from an early one-act opera to a Walt Whitman text recalling an ecstatic love affair. The declamatory Opie and the slightly fluttery Janice Watson don’t make the happiest of partnerships. But the hauntingly beautiful piece is a valuable addition to this celebration of Delius’s 150th anniversary.