The Enchantress; Meditations on a Theme by John Blow; Mary of Magdala
Sarah Connolly (mezzo-soprano), James Platt (bass); BBC Symphony Orchestra/Andrew Davis
Chandos CHSA 5242 (hybrid CD/SACD) 76:58 mins
A quasi-operatic scena conceived for Kathleen Ferrier, and a sacred cantata with ‘Three Choirs Festival’ written all over it, frame a stand-out set of orchestral variations as Chandos’s Bliss odyssey with Sir Andrew Davis and his BBC forces notches up a third instalment. The music straddles roughly a decade whose halfway point is marked by the 1955 Meditations on a Theme by John Blow, an essay in variation form interpretatively engineered around the verses of the 23rd Psalm. It’s a work that finds Davis in his element, pacing the whole with an impeccable assuredness, coaxing ravishing wind playing in the Introduction, expansively at home in the first variation which elaborates ‘He leadeth me beside the still waters’, and bitingly trenchant in the variation that follows. Throughout, Davis is scrupulously solicitous of Bliss’s carefully calculated play of orchestral colour, and a warm surround-sound recording is the icing on the expressive cake.
The sacred cantata Mary of Magdala is perhaps a more problematic work, sometimes hidebound by its English choral pedigree; but Davis believes in it and enjoys the unassailable support of Sarah Connolly in the title role, and James Platt as a consummately dignified Christ. Indeed Connolly is similarly Rolls-Royce casting for The Enchantress, a Theocritus-derived disquisition on love, abandonment and sorcery. Spurred on by Davis who seizes on the cantata’s muscularity, felicities of detail and filmic immediacy, she savours to the full its declamatory fervour, sometimes twisted rapture, and fleeting tenderness.
For fans of Sir Arthur, let Bliss be unconfined!