Delius – A Mass of Life

Delius – A Mass of Life

For those who think of Frederick Delius as the composer of gentle idylls such as In a Summer Garden and Late Swallows, A Mass of Life, which sets in German parts of Nietzsche’s Also Sprach Zarathustra, might come as something of a surprise. First performed complete in London in 1909, it includes parts for six horns, four trumpets and a battery of percussion. Its musical language is conservative, late-romantic without perhaps the sustained melodic distinctiveness of some of his shorter works.  

The greater part of the text is sung by a baritone, who effectively becomes Zarathustra, which Roderick Williams delivers with lieder-like attention to detail, immense conviction and considerable feeling. The only caveat being that with the advancing years his tone has thinned and acquired what is now close to a beat, but no other singer inhabits the role in the way he does. The other soloists, who are similarly characterful and intense, blend together beautifully and compared to those on the Charles Groves and Richard Hickox sets their style is more intimate and conversational. 

The orchestral playing and choral singing are vibrantly fresh and alive (the woodwind especially so); the ensemble immaculate. In the programme notes Mark Elder says the work ‘is often over-scored’, which presumably led him to seek out and achieve the exceptional clarity of line and texture that allows him to lay bare Delius’ distinctive harmonic language. From the fast and furious opening chorus onwards he always chooses the tempo justo, while still using subtle rubato and changes of pace, captures every change of mood and gives the big moments their full due; although it would have been nice to hear more of the timpani. All of which makes this the finest account of the work available.    

The album was recorded in DXD. By way of comparison, DSD512, the highest available streaming format of 24/192 and CD quality Flac 16/44.1 were used. The latter is very good, having a nice sense of depth and a pleasingly homogenous sound. Go to 24/192 and the acoustic is more tangible, there is greater presence and the soloist’s individual timbres are better captured. Turn to DSD512 and the effect is akin to removing old varnish from a painting. Suddenly there is a proper acoustic and more space around the instruments. The woodwind, string tone and percussion are weightier and more defined and the brass cut through more. The choirs have real bloom and projection; the soloists are very much there in front of you. 

As a bonus Andrew Mellor contributes some fine programme notes, with contributions from Mark Elder and the whole package has a quality feel to it.      

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