Bliss: Morning Heroes, Hymn to Apollo

Samuel West (orator); BBC Symphony Chorus; BBC Symphony Orchestra/Andrew Davis

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COMPOSERS: Bliss
LABELS: Chandos
ALBUM TITLE: Bliss: Morning Heroes, Hymn to Apollo
WORKS: Morning Heroes; Hymn to Apollo
PERFORMER: Samuel West (orator); BBC Symphony Chorus; BBC Symphony Orchestra/Andrew Davis
CATALOGUE NO: CHSA 5159 (hybrid CD/SACD)

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Sir Arthur Bliss was wounded in the First World War, and his beloved brother Kennard was killed. Morning Heroes, premiered in 1930, was his long-delayed war requiem. It portrays departure for war, preparations for battle, periods of waiting, the heroism of combat, its deadly outcome and the glorious memory of fallen comrades, in texts drawn from Homer’s Iliad, Li Tai Po, Walt Whitman and the war poets Wilfred Owen and Robert Nichols, set for orator and chorus. The score conveys elevated grief and soldierly courage in distinctly personal tones, with rich orchestral colouring; but its most telling passage comes when the orator speaks Owen’s stark ‘Spring Offensive’ against a spare background of menacing drums alternating with silence.

Sir Andrew Davis’s performance with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus surpasses Sir Charles Groves’s fine 1974 EMI Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra account with urgent tempos, choral singing of full tone and incisive attack, eloquent orchestral playing, and an excellent, open recording (with a surround-sound option) which clearly places Samuel West’s moving orator in the acoustic of the Fairfield Halls, Croydon alongside his colleagues.

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The coupling is Bliss’s orchestral Hymn to Apollo of 1926, in its original, rawer version. The piece is appropriate not just because it picks up the cantata’s closing vision, in Nichols’s ‘Dawn on the Somme’, of ‘companies of morning heroes’ streaming towards Apollo the sun god, but also, as Andrew Burn’s authoritative note explains, because it’s addressed to Apollo as the god of healing, and so formed a part of Bliss’s long and fruitful process of recovery. Anthony Burton