> Sullivan The Golden legend CDA67280 [CW] : Classical Reviews- February 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Arthur SULLIVAN (1842-1900)
The Golden Legend
- cantata
Janice Watson (sop), Jean Rigby (mezzo),
Mark Wilde (ten), Jeffrey Black (bar), Jonathan Brown (ten)
London Chorus, New London Symphony Orchestra, Ronald Corp
Rec: All Saints Church, Tooting, London; Feb. 2001

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Listening to the admirable Hyperion performance of "The Golden Legend", I found myself wondering what on earth - or in heaven - gives Sullivan his special power to warm the spirit? This 95-minute cantata is in many ways the finest of his non-Gilbertian works, and a thing of considerable beauty; yet its neglect throughout the last hundred years has been as inevitable as its huge success after the Leeds Festival triumph of 1886.

Revered in its time, Longfellow's verse tale of the self-sacrifice of a pure virgin for the life and soul of a Prince she doesn't know is severely alien to modern taste. Its Christian motif has a classic antecedent in the story of Alkestis, but Longfellow's version crucially bales out by allowing Elsie to be saved at the last gasp, and even marry her redeemed Prince - a conclusion which transmutes "The Golden Legend" into the comfortable, leaden fable which Joseph Bennett adapted and Sullivan set.

Still, now we can put our anti-macassar complex behind us, and there's no need to be remotely apologetic for the music. Mendelssohn provides some of the moral uplift, but more surprising is the influence of Berlioz's "Damnation of Faust". This is manifest in Sullivan's orchestral wizardry, and most strikingly of all in his wittily academic characterisation of Lucifer, light epigone of the Frenchman's Mephisto. "Eugene Onegin" makes an unexpected appearance, too; but in turn, Sullivan's influence in freeing the young Elgar from the teutonic yoke is patent. The dying Gerontius is just around the bedpost from Sullivan's ailing Prince Henry, even - as David Russell Hulme's first-rate note points out - down to some shared musical material.

"The Golden Legend" cannot compete with either the Berlioz or Elgar in consistency or depth of musical integration. Nonetheless, those special touching qualities give it a gentle power all its own. Sullivan's limpidity is perhaps closer to Schumann than anyone, but nobody else could have penned the long-limbed, sensuous melody that graces the final scene for hero and heroine; the luscious sweetness of Henry's solo on succumbing to Lucifer's demon alcohol; or best of all, the superb sunset glow of Elsie's 'The Night is calm', as she contemplates the sea on what she believes will be her last evening.

The appearance of "The Golden Legend" on commercial CD is a milestone long overdue, and this performance can be heartily welcomed on nearly all counts. Though lacking the blazing fervour of David Lyle's prize-winning live Edinburgh performance (with largely amateur forces, privately available on Savoyard Chorus and Orchestra's 2-CD WP1100) the newcomer has been scrupulously prepared by Ronald Corp, lovingly executed by his choir and orchestra and given a nicely balanced recording by the Hyperion team.

Corp's pacing allows the work to unfold naturally, without any sense of hurry or striving for effect. Sullivan's delightful scoring has space to register with great presence, given the warm but not over-reverberant acoustic of All Saints Church, Tooting. The London Chorus is notable its for crystal diction, and though it is not a large body this pays dividends in the two unaccompanied motets, 'O gladsome light' and 'O pure in heart'. Contrariwise, tenors and basses sound marginally underpowered and underpitched in the sweeping final chorus 'God sent His messenger the rain', though the central fugal section is certainly done with captivating verve.

Unusually for a major choral work of its time, "The Golden Legend" stands or falls by the quality of its soloists, and here the Hyperion version scores highly. Mark Wilde is a lyric tenor in the Richard Lewis mould, singing with the rich, clean vocal sheen you'd expect from an ENO Tamino, and his Prince Henry is a pleasure throughout. Though Janice Watson's creamy soprano is just beginning to curdle at the top, her weight of voice and purity of line is just right for the virginal Elsie. It's hardly her fault that the thrilling 1927 record of 'The night is calm' by the great Wagnerian Florence Austral, with chorus and orchestra under John Barbirolli, remains hors concours.

Jean Rigby is Elsie's mother Ursula, and though she doesn't quite erase memories of Sarah Walker's matronly passion in the Leeds centennial performance under Mackerras (for long circulated on illicit cassettes, BBC Legends take note!) her reflective, youthful-sounding characterisation avoids any taint of emotive excess. Only Jeffrey Black's generalised, woolly Lucifer disappoints, missing most of Sullivan's musical tricks and casting a blight on proceedings in quite the wrong sense.

Altogether, then, a heart-warming issue which is a must for anyone with a more than passing interest in the choral range of which "The Golden Legend" forms a distinct peak. "The Mikado" it ain't, but even dyed-in-the-wool Savoyards brought up on the article of faith that Sullivan without Gilbert was Sullivan without the spark, may find themselves surprised and delighted by what they hear in this fine value Hyperion set.

Chris Webber

See also review by Raymond Walker


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