Bantock: Omar Khayyám

COMPOSERS: Bantock
LABELS: Chandos
ALBUM TITLE: Bantock
WORKS: Omar Khayyám
PERFORMER: Catherine Wyn-Rogers (mezzo-soprano), Toby Spence (tenor), Roderick Williams (baritone); BBC Symphony Chorus & O/Vernon Handley
CATALOGUE NO: CHSA 5051(3)
In the vaults of the Titanic lies a masterpiece of bookbinding, a peacock pattern of fine goatskin, gold and precious stones created around a ubiquitous bestseller – The Ruba’iyat of Omar Khayyám. These 11th-century Persian musings on life, death, love and wine curiously captured the imagination of Edwardian England, and many composers set them – Liza Lehmann’s songs, for example. Only Granville Bantock, though, produced a setting as rich as that binding, and, in this premiere recording, as illuminating.

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Bantock, a very bouncy Tigger who ranged from musical comedy to serious conducting, composition and distinguished professorship, was a leading exponent of new music (championing Sibelius), and intrigued by Oriental and ethnic themes. He separates Omar into three – Poet, Beloved, and Philosopher – voicing his verses to a leitmotif-driven score, its lush Orientalism airier and finer-textured than Rimsky or Zemlinsky. Many will still find it heavy going. The long first section, dominated by Beloved, Poet and chorus, strays towards Tristan-esque, sensual languor – not for nothing is one motif called ‘Kayf’ – that is kif or hashish! But in the succeeding sections the work gathers turbulent energy as the Philosopher confronts his love of wine and his intimations of mortality, with an exuberance recalling the Elgar oratorios, also Handley territory.

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It’s a fascinating rediscovery on a huge scale, especially in the detail and depth of SACD surround-sound, seductively performed by Handley’s forces, Toby Spence appropriately poetic and Catherine Wyn-Rogers sensuous. Roderick Williams initially lacks the sardonic baritonal bite for the Philosopher, but improves. The powerfully dramatic style makes one eager to hear more neglected Bantock – his Hebridean opera The Seal-Woman, especially.