> Arthur Sullivan - The Golden Legend [PS]: Classical CD Reviews- June2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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The Golden Legend

Janice Watson, Jean Rigby, Mark Jeffrey Black, Jonathan Brown
London Chorus
New London Orchestra cond. Ronald Corp
Rec 2001
HYPERION CDA 67280 (2 CDs for price of one)


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It seems incredible that we have had to wait until 2001 for a recording of The Golden Legend. Composed by Sullivan for the Leeds Festival of 1886, it was immediately acclaimed and remained popular with choral societies throughout the country for perhaps 30 years. It was, for example, programmed by Doncaster Musical Society late in 1914. Thereafter its neglect was total – though in the past two decades a handful of revivals have taken place, notably a memorable centenary performance under Sir Charles Mackerras at Leeds in 1986.

It does not deserve oblivion. The role of the chorus, whose writing often displays Sullivan’s preoccupation with hymns and hymnlike melody, is (dramatic in form and indeed in musical language. Of poorer quality are "O Gladsome Light", which long enjoyed a separate existence as an anthem, and the rather conventional Epilogue.

The London Chorus, under Ronald Corp, surely one of the finest choral conductors of the present day, respond admirably with excellently balances and well focused singing. The soloists, too, contribute mightily. As Prince Henry, Mark Wilde is serenely, often ardently, lyrical, not least in his Scene 3 solo "It is the Sea". Lucifer, villain though he naturally is, is no melodramatic role and the Australian Jeffrey Black’s sturdy baritone makes a plausible case for him. Jean Rigby’s warm mezzo makes much of Ursula’s admittedly conventional part. The tenor Jonathan Brown does well with the bit part of the Forester.

But The Legend, vocally at least, perhaps stands or falls by its heroine, Elsie, and the admirable Janice Watson, pure of voice yet not lacking in emotion, makes sure that this one does indeed stand. This is clearest in the surpassingly beautiful "The Night is Calm" which ends Scene 3. That said, and moving though it is, this does not quite efface the memory of the famous 1920s recording by the great Australian soprano Florence Austral.

Sullivan – and this is apparent even in G&S, - is one British music’s greatest orchestrators. This recording confirms my impression from hearing The Legend in 1986. It is the work's instrumental writing which brings it to the margin of greatness. The New London Orchestra revel in its felicities.

The Gold Legend has its moments of sentimentality, no doubt, though perhaps these are owed to Longfellow rather than to Sullivan. Its dramatic episodes confirm for me (and I yield to no one in my admiration for Parry) that here is the essential link between Elijah and The Dream of Gerontius. Elgar, incidentally, thought highly of Sullivan.

We should be grateful to Hyperion, Ronald Corp et al for enabling us to judge its significance for ourselves. This is an important release, which I recommend to everyone. The recording is, by the way, excellent and the information booklet prints the text.

Philip Scowcroft

See also reviews by Raymond Walker, and Chris Webber

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