Delius' A Mass of Life is squarely in that category of grandiose gargantuanism that was clearly a big fascination for British composers at the beginning of the English musical renaissance around the turn of the century. The twin predecessors of this category of titanic works are clear: first the German line - Bach's Masses and Passions, Beethoven's Choral Symphony, Brahms' Requiem, Wagner, Bruckner, Mahler 8, Gurrelieder - proving that, talent permitting, works of this ambition and scale were a real possibility, and then early English examples emulating this line (Parry, Stanford) with Elgar at the peak with his masterpiece The Dream of Gerontius (1900), which cements the idea of the Big Choral Work as something achievable by English composers, followed by the comparatively disappointing and only intermittently inspired The Apostles (1903) and The Kingdom (1906), which were to have been two parts of an enormous trilogy.
The proliferance of works of this sort in England also derived from the will and means to perform them - the grand old tradition of the choral society as the cornerstone of British musical life even before it had major composers. A Mass of Life came early (1905) and is therefore particularly significant historically, but other works in this line include Vaughan Williams' Sea Symphony (1909), Foulds' A World Requiem (1921), Brian's Gothic Symphony (1927) (though his Symphonies No. 2, 3 and 4 are all in this category too), in this company the relatively modest Belshazzar's Feast (1931), with later offerings from Howells (Hymnus Paradisi (1938), his masterpiece, then the larger but lesser Stabat Mater (1965) and thrusting Missa Sabrinensis (1954)), Finzi (Intimations of Immortality (1950)) and Britten (War Requiem (1962)).
Like most of these works, Delius' A Mass of Life isn't quite able to fully support its massive bulk as he lacks the technical musculature or the instinctive drive for the task. Its date puts it near the beginning of his maturity where he's still discovering what he can do and as such the work has stronger and weaker portions. At this stage his orchestration lacks the clear water colour luminosity of his prime, and things tend to get muddy, turgid, undifferentiated, (especially in live performance) until the quieter portions which occasionally hint at the dreamy atmosphere of his later works. Not just the orchestration though is responsible for this aural confusion- the slithering chromatic harmony lacks direction and pulse and is choked by its own complexity, though distinctive Delian drooping phrases do occasionally rear their head, as lines wilt and billow ever downwards and outwards.
It turns out that the work's finest portion by some margin, was actually composed first: the two final numbers Gottes Weh ist tiefer and Kommt Lasst uns jetzt wandeln were actually premiered separately in a slightly different form in 1899 - only here does Delius achieve the Wagnerian gravitas and Mahlerian intensity that the whole work so obviously aims at, in music of very special beauty. The rest of the piece reaches for the ecstatic and visionary tenor of the text, but feels overwrought and unremitting, impressive though the massed forces and huge choral outbursts can be. The selection of texts, all excerpted from Nietzsche's Also Sprach Zarathustra, sensibly eschew the more overtly philosophical tracts in favour of the more poetic portions of that book, though word setting rarely seems specific enough beyond communicating the general febrile fervour of the text.
No one could accuse the performance of lacking commitment or betraying a lack of belief in the work however - Andrew Davis lead a performance that was ceaselessly energetic and driven, though he ultimately failed to clarify the work's opacity or imbue it with more personality. The bolstered Edinbrugh Festival Chorus did extremely well in a very demanding sing, sounding magnificently full and fiery in the opening chorus, though the relentlessly high writing for the sopranos took its toll on the tuning in the final half hour of the piece.
The work also employs four soloists, of which the baritone has by far the lion's share of the material. Hanno Müller-Brachmann was truly magnificent in this part, singing with a flawless diction, a beautifully lightly coloured lyric line, and rising to Wagnerian climaxes which never sounded laboured or pressured. He's a singer very clearly in the line of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, and his sound and approach invite instant comparison without Müller-Brachmann coming off badly in any way. The aforementioned final section was exquisitely sung and one can only hope that he will be engaged by the ROH for some Wagner or Mozart in the very near future.
The other soloists all sang well even if they lacked the special timbre and clarity of Müller-Brachmann. Anna Christy has a light, rather tweety voice, with an intense vibrato that makes her soprano a little edgy rather than silvery. Still, she sung her small parts with a nice legato and excellent intonation. Tenor Robert Murray sounded fresh and well matched to the baritone, but Pamela Helen Stephen, whose acting I so admired in the recent ROH Troyens, seemed a little out of sorts, with a lack of connection between notes and sounding slightly stressed and pushed in higher lying passages. Diction and tuning were very good however and there wasn't a question of not being able to sing it.
It's always interesting to see these behemoths in the concert hall because they are so rarely done - inevitably there will be disappointments, but Müller-Brachmann's singing and wonderful music of the last quarter hour of the work made it all worth while.