Sir Arthur SULLIVAN
Symphony in E major "Irish"
Suite from The Tempest
Richard Hickox conducting
the BBC Philharmonic
CHANDOS CHAN 9859
Some years ago I watched a BBC documentary that presented a helicopter's
view of the coast around Britain, and its countryside. Suddenly I sat up
with a jolt when I heard a piece of music. I was so knocked out by it that
I just had to write to find out what it was. Imagine my surprise when I
discovered that this cracking piece of orchestral music was by the composing
half of the Gilbert and Sullivan light opera team. The piece that had so
impressed me was the Andante espressivo slow movement of Sullivan's
"Irish" Symphony. (It must have impressed the producers of that TV documentary
which BBC really ought to repeat, by the way, for it was so unusual and
outstanding, because they quoted liberally from the Symphony during the course
of the programme).
Elgar is often attributed, wrongly, with the beginning of Britain's musical
renaissance when, in actual fact, had really been instigated by Parry and
Stanford. And this Symphony, composed, surprisingly, as early as 1866 (when
Elgar was not yet ten years old) was a major work and landmark in its progress.
Sullivan was inspired to write his Symphony after a visit, in 1863, to Ireland,
where his father had been born. From Belfast he wrote to his mother that:
the other night as I was jolting home
through the wind and
rain on an open jaunting car, the whole first movement of a symphony came
into my head with a real fresh flavour about it - besides scraps of other
movements. August Manns premiered the work at the Crystal Palace in 1866
and it received rave reviews.
Sullivan's "Irish" Symphony brims with good tunes; the first movement is
exhilarating and exciting. The second movement, that so impressed me, has
striking themes for trombones and lower strings. Hickox's trombones alas
cannot quite match the majestic solemnity of those on Charles Groves's EMI
recording. His brass articulates splendidly and they are paced and distanced
just right - delicious tingling stuff! The third movement has a jaunty oboe
theme and some delightful sparring between pizzicato strings and bubbling
woodwind. It is interesting to note that when this work was composed, Brahms,
Tchaikovsky, and Dvorák were all at the beginning of their symphonic
careers. Sullivan is clearly more influenced by Mendelssohn particularly
in the last two movements and to a lesser extent by Schumann and Schubert.
Sullivan's The Tempest music was first performed at his graduation
concert (from Leipzig Conservatory) in 1861. Again it received huge acclaim
and the music was later used in a stage production at the Prince's Theatre,
Manchester in 1864. The Suite on this record comprises a somewhat darkish,
brooding Prelude followed by movements in much lighter vein that anticipate
the comic operas. The stand-out movements are the 'Banquet Dance' and the
capricious 'Dance of the Nymphs and Reapers' Again the influence of Mendelssohn
Brahms is more influential in the context of Sullivan's Oveture: In Memoriam
which he described as an outpouring of grief following the death of his father.
But the pervading tone is one of deep affection rather than sadness. It is
most successful in its central passages. The theme of the finale is not
sufficiently impressive to bear the grandiose climactic chorale treatment
complete with organ.
The best work in this collection, by far, is Sullivan's "Irish" Symphony
which enjoys a sterling performance from Hickox and the BBC Philharmonic;
but, for me, it cannot displace Groves's magnificent 1968 recording with
the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra.