When hearing a live performance of a neglected choral epic there are broadly speaking two reactions, either "why isn't this performed more often" (e.g. Sibelius's Kullervo) or "that's been justly neglected". Delius's A Mass of Life fell firmly into the latter category, as well making a strong running for the title of most ironically named piece, seeming neither to effectively celebrate life nor contain a significant quantity of it.
It must be stressed that, for the most part, this wasn't the fault of the performers. The RSNO are generally a good orchestra and tend to be on the top of their game when under the baton of Andrew Davis as they were for this. Yet try as they might, they were unable to resuscitate Delius's score which remained stubbornly bland and devoid of emotion. They were joined by the festival chorus who didn't impress quite as much as they have done in some recent performances, though I am reluctant to criticise them too much since Delius's writing didn't seem designed to flatter them. The weak link in terms of performance was the quartet of soloists, particularly baritone Hanno Muller-Brachmann who seemed a little strained, though in part this may have been because he had by far the most to do. And even if you assembled the finest fantasy quartet in musical history it wouldn't make this work a much more appealing prospect.
The most significant flaw is probably Delius's inability to set text effectively. True, Nietzsche's Also sprach Zarathustra is a pretty mad affair but it is not without its moments, no more so than with "the world is deep" which Mahler sets so effectively in his third symphony, leaving you to feel as though the world has opened up to swallow you; Delius might as well be expressing a preference for the extent to which sandwiches should be filled. Elsewhere the bariton sings of the pangs of his heart, not that you would have any clue of that from the music.
It doesn't really help that all over the place the work invites comparison with other far finer pieces that would have made utterly superior openers. So, during the second part's maritime movement, it is hard not to be reminded that Vaughan Williams locates more drama and excitement in the opening two bars his Sea Symphony than Delius does in two hours, or to note during the mini mountain tone poem, complete with offstage brass, how comprehensively outclassed he is by what Strauss would do a decade or so later (something the festival helpfully underscored by programming the Alpensinfonie the next day). Speaking of Strauss, we should probably note comparison with his Zarathustra inspired work. Not, it must be said, his finest hour, but at least it has a few glorious minutes at the outset.
Delius, it is true, does engineer a few big climaxes, but they are unfocussed and really boil down to loud and not especially distinguished noises. He has little talent for orchestration, with the triangle and what sounded like castanets in the second movement sounding particularly garishly out of place. Elsewhere he tries to use the choir as an instrument, yet compared to the extraordinary effect Ravel creates in Daphnis et Chloe, all we have here is a bunch of people going "la, la, la," in a manner as bland as the idea on paper suggests.
It is difficult to see what possessed the festival to pick this and it is hardly the roof-raising spectacle that an opening concert should be. Perhaps there was a desire to choose a British work, yet what of Elgar's less performed oratorios such as The Kingdom or The Apostles. For two years running now we have been treated to a justly obscure curtain raiser. Hopefully next time round we will get to hear something more in keeping with the occasion. In the meantime, the Delius should be returned to the bottom drawer of whichever disused and broken filing cabinet it was found in.