In 1920, Frederick Delius was approached to provide incidental music for the first production of James Elroy Flecker’s Hassan, an orientalist drama, unperformed at the writer’s death in 1915, about a naive Baghdad confectioner appointed to the court of the Caliph Harun al-Rashid, only to become appalled by the brutality and sadism he finds there. Spectacularly staged, it was an immediate success when it opened in London in 1923, but soon fell – and indeed remains – out of favour: Flecker’s ornate, fin de siècle language would have seemed dated even at the time; and the play’s depiction of a stereotypically cruel and sexualised Middle East renders it nowadays un-revivable.
Only snippets of Delius’s music, meanwhile, have ever been performed with any regularity, though the Britten Sinfonia have now given us an opportunity to hear the score complete, with a new narration by artistic director Meurig Bowen, summarising and contextualising the play, and handsomely spoken by Classic FM presenter Zeb Soanes. Jamie Phillips’s refined, insightful conducting brought home just how lovely the serenades, nocturnes and choral dances really are, as well as emphasising the passages of hammering ferocity and brooding darkness that expose the Caliph’s brutality. Delius does something astonishing in the final scene, meanwhile, when Hassan, broken and disillusioned, joins pilgrims on “the golden road to Samarkand” and the music slowly leaves the chromatic anguish of this world behind and moves towards a timeless simplicity that almost preempts minimalism. It’s extraordinarily affecting: the players and Britten Sinfonia Voices sounded particularly beautiful here
A very different east-west encounter came before the interval when the orchestra were joined by the Egyptian-Australian oud (Arabic lute) virtuoso and composer Joseph Tawadros for three of his own works, including the world premiere of his concerto Three Stages of Hindsight. This is a terrific piece that plays fast and loose with harmonic convention as western keys morph back and forth into Arabic modes over three classically structured albeit interlinked movements. Tawadros’s Constellation uses western guitar and Japanese kora techniques to expand the oud’s expressive range, while Constantinople, his “attempt at writing a heavy metal tune for the oud,” as he puts it, is a staggering showstopper for oud and orchestra alike. An immensely enjoyable concert from one of our most innovative and vital ensembles. And another reminder that Arts Council England’s decision to withdraw their funding was misguided in the extreme.