Zeb Soanes narrator
Britten Sinfonia
Jamie Phillips conductor


Though I am willing to be corrected, I think this is the first time that the whole of the Hassan score has been recorded, though some excerpts are of course very familiar. The music was written for the ‘Poetic Prose Play’ The Story of Hassan of Baghdad and how he came to make the Golden Journey to Samarkand, by James Elroy Flecker. The production by Basil Dean proved popular – it ran for some 281 consecutive performances in the London season of 1923-4.

In this presentation the dialogue has been rendered into a narrative by Meurig Bowen. There are 50 tracks on this 80-minute disc, slightly more than half containing the music (sometimes extremely brief) and the rest prose.

All this seems on first sight very admirable, but I find myself conflicted as to the success of the venture for various reasons.  Firstly, of course, the listener must teleport into the mindset of an audience of 100 years ago. The plot seems now to be virtually a pantomime, with some very illusory, possible demeaning and racist ideas of Middle Eastern culture.  I suspect that listeners my well jump tracks to avoid hearing the narrative every time the disc is played.  After all, the music is indeed often magical, and would surely be the main reason why one would wish to acquire this disc.

The Britten Sinfonia play beautifully with some exquisite woodwind playing, but there are curious flaws in the recording.  For instance, where the – usually excellent- chorus are ‘behind the scenes’ (track 9) they are so quiet as to be almost inaudible. By contrast, some of the big fortissimos are so dominated by brass and percussion that they harshly obliterate other details. Maybe there were insuperable problems with the acoustics of the recording venue.

However, one further detail is frankly shocking.  In the lovely and most memorable closing scene, where the ‘caravan’ is proceeding on its way to its destination, Delius most imaginatively calls for a ‘camel bell’.  This is a vital part of the ambiance, and it is missing. (It can be heard well on the later Beecham recording which you can access on YouTube.)  One can understand the possible difficulty of sourcing an actual camel bell, but cattle or goat bells are a very near equivalent and can be purchased on Amazon for £5.99 for two (though you would only need one).

Review by Geoffrey Atkinson