Granville Bantock’s (1868-1946) time in the Middle East (on a world tour with Sidney Jones’s A Gaiety Girl in 1895, the composer himself spending much of his early years working with musical comedies) was probably the only exposure he had to anything Eastern apart from the normal Victorian fashion with things that seemed exotic to them—which was practically everything outside their very buttoned-down society. But one advantage they had was the use of the imagination. Even though what we hear in the work under consideration is seen through the colored glasses of the age—a sort of Victorian Islamicism—the experience itself is genuine and realistic enough to transport us to the shores of England, if not Omar Khayyam’s Persia.
Bantock composed on a very large scale—his Christ in the Wilderness and Curse of Kehama are but two examples of his large-boned thinking. It is hardly any wonder that he finally got around to setting Edward Fitzgerald’s monumental translation of Khayyam’s Rubaiyat, or “Verses”. This setting, one of the great achievements of Victorian England, was wildly popular during its time, and Bantock set all 101 verses. The theme is of man’s short days upon the earth, and of the smallness of his individual existence. While not exactly uplifting in and of itself, it is a fairly creditable exercise in penitential poetry, and could not but have much appeal for the age.
Bantock was greatly influenced by Wagner, and assigned a group of leitmotifs to the various themes, nicely outlined in the notes to this release. He also makes use of two full string sections, making for a very large antiphonal orchestra. This oratorio made a splash in its time, and this recording is its first one, fortunately for us done in spectacular surround sound with expert forces to provide the excitement. But—there are some sections that have been left out, so this first adventure on disc cannot claim the “complete” appellation.
Did I say excitement? Well, in spots, for three hours of this stuff, not exactly varied in temperament, goes a long way fast despite the composer’s valiant attempt to make it as musically varied as possible. Yet it remains an important work, and it is hard to believe that it has not appeared before now. Thank goodness a company like Chandos is willing to fork out such a large expenditure for what is essentially an opera recording, or at least as expensive as one. Handley was the perfect choice for this repertory, and the BBC ensembles play with a lot of enthusiasm and tonal sheen, and the fine soloists make the most of this new discovery. I cannot for one moment suggest to you that this is five-star music, but it is certainly a five-star recording, an important issue, and the music might just unexpectedly grab you.
— Steven Ritter