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Samuel COLERIDGE-TAYLOR (1875-1912)

Scenes from 'The Song of Hiawatha' by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow - a trilogy of secular cantatas (1900) [119.15]:
1. Hiawatha's Wedding Feast [35.50]
2. The Death of Minnehaha [36.01]
3. Hiawatha's Departure [48.26]
Symphonic Variations on an African Air (1899) [20.15]
Helen Field (sop)
Arthur Davies (ten)
Bryn Terfel (bar)
Chorus of Welsh National Opera
Orchestra of Welsh National Opera/Kenneth Alwyn (Hiawatha)
Royal Liverpool PO/Grant Llewellyn (Variations)
rec. Brangwyn Hall, Swansea, Jan 1990 (Hiawatha); Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool, Sept 1991 (Variations). DDD
DECCA The British Music Collection 473 431-2 [71.15+68.41]


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This makes a logical and open-handed coupling. Certainly it is much more generous that the original 2 CD issue of the Hiawatha trilogy.

Coleridge-Taylor died in 1912 well before the Great War. It seems insensitive to say it but given the fate of those who lived through that war and who wrote in a similar idiom there is a kindness about his early death. Had his music continued in a similar vein then he too would have suffered an eclipse as cruel as that suffered by other British composers of similar inclinations.

The Hiawatha triptych is written in a style of Stanford, Bruch and Dvořák. These are picturesque cantatas - smooth and touching diversions rather than heaven-clawing epics of the emotions. That picturesque theme was picked up in the many staged-costumed productions that continued well into the 1950s under Malcolm Sargent's musical leadership and Tom Fairbairn's stage direction. They are linked by a common style, by a choral emphasis and by some leitmotifs such as that which is dominant in the Wedding Feast and which reappears in the Departure - at On the shore stood Hiawatha (CD2 tr.13).

The music is mostly for chorus and across the three linked works - 33 separately tracked scenes - only eleven feature soloists. Of course some of these are staggering hits such as the tenor aria Onaway Awake Beloved. While there can be a stern-ness about the ideas there is little intimation of tragedy - nothing comparable even with Brahms’ Tragic Overture. The chorus's role is rather to recount in lovely undulating singing the story of Hiawatha, the tribes of the wasteland and of his beloved Minnehaha. While the harp provides some Tchaikovskian colour the effect is of Dvořák's Ludmilla and Spectre's Bride and of the early Elgar cantatas such as Caractacus and The Black Knight. The music does make a pass at deeper things e.g. in the veldt loneliness of 'O the Long and dreary winter' (CD1 tr 12) but too often the music swerves back into the accustomed Stanfordian narrative groove where pages might have escaped from Phaudrig Crohoore or The Revenge. While the Longfellow verse might have been modelled on Kirby's translation of the Finnish ‘Kalevala’ there is no sign of the sort of originality or desperate intensity Sibelius brought to the Kullervo symphony or the Lemminkainen legends. The solos tend towards lachrymose Victorian passions: sentimentality and potplants! Expectations need to be modest. SC-T was no revolutionary but he wrote with great mastery within the compass of pleasing and well-crafted choralism. Despite its outdated idiom it is a tribute to the composer that the cantatas continued their concert life well into the 1950s. However even Sargent, that beloved high priest of the feathered head-dress, recorded only The Wedding Feast. The work had to wait until Kenneth Alwyn and Decca in the early 1990s before it was recorded complete. Alwyn was of course the natural choice as he had lead a BBC revival of the complete triptych broadcast on 31 January 1975 from the Fairfield Hall, Croydon with Stuart Burrows as the tenor.

I have high hopes that eventually his other cantatas will be recorded. We need to hear Meg Blane, A Tale of Old Japan and the Legend of Castel-Cuillé. Even more do we need to hear the symphony and the Violin Concerto. The later is reputed to have been recorded by Lorraine McAslan for Lyrita Recorded Edition with the Julius Harrison Bredon Hill Rhapsody but I doubt we will ever hear those tapes. I also know the Violin Concerto from Sergiu Schwartz's BBC Radio 3 broadcast in the 1980s. This is a lovely work sympathetic to the Dvořák concerto.

Hiawatha makes a very welcome return to the catalogue after its first issue on Argo in 1991-2.

The Variations have also been issued previously in a mixed recital including works by Butterworth and Smyth. These are delicate and gentle inspirations with Tchaikovskian sweetness, the rodomontade of Stanford and the orchestral dramatics of Hamilton Harty. They also reminded me of Hurlstone's orchestral variations. If I am not mistaken the peroration has something of a resemblance to the sunset triumphs of Appalachia by Delius.

The notes are by Kenneth Alwyn. The full sung texts are provided.

Essential listening for those in pursuit of the English 19th century romantics especially those who need to document one of the cornerstones of choral society repertory in the first half of the last century. The Variations evince true mastery and defy the hackneyed expectations inflamed by Hiawatha.

Rob Barnett

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