Sunday 2 September 2007
Granville Bantock (1868-1946) is virtually forgotten now, but he was one of the composers in the vanguard of the English musical revival in the first decades of the 20th century. As professor of music at Birmingham University, he set about broadening his students’ musical horizons as much as possible by performing Gluck, and adding early music and the works of Rimsky-Korsakov and Richard Strauss to the syllabus, though his own musical style never strayed far beyond the late Romanticism of Brahms and early Wagner.
Much of Bantock’s vast and uneven output was orchestral music, but in his early years in Birmingham he wrote a succession of choral works, of which easily the most massive is this setting of Edward Fitzgerald’s verse translation of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, which emerged piecemeal between 1908 and 1910. Scored for three soloists, a large choir and an orchestra that includes a set of camel bells, Omar Khayyam is conceived on an epic scale: even with some cuts, this first recording runs to almost three hours. The project was clearly a labour of love for conductor Vernon Handley, who does a wonderfully committed job, though the reasons for the work’s almost total neglect for more than half a century soon become clear enough. The Rubaiyat is not in any sense a dramatic or narrative work, and though Bantock attempts to give his setting a dramatic framework by assigning roles — the Beloved, the Poet and the Philosopher — to the three soloists, there is still a tendency for the music to cruise along in Victorian oratorio mode, following one succulent texture with another. The three soloists are all first rate; the orchestral playing is efficient too, though a bit more tonal allure wouldn’t have gone amiss in what is after all a sumptuously brocaded if rather staid score.