> SULLIVAN The Martyr of Antioch [PS]: Classical Reviews- May2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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The Martyr of Antioch

Catherine Foster (sop); Gillian Knight (contr.);
Stephen Brown (ten.); Gareth Jones (bar.);
Stephen Godward (bass); Clive Woods (organ);
Northern Chamber Orchestra and Sullivan Chorus
Conducted by Richard Balcombe
Recording of performance at Gilbert and Sullivan Festival, Buxton, August 2000
SYMPOSIUM 1289 [78.41] Midprice


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Sullivan was the laureate composer of Queen Victoria’s reign and, at least in the mid Victorian era, Britian’s greatest composer. One observer compared his genius favourably with that of Brahms. For much of the 20th Century his reputation, sullied by academics, was in decline, apart from the continuing popularity of the Savoy operas, which, because they were light music, academic critics averred, did not "count" in assessing his musical reputation.

Only during the past couple of decades has an attempt been made to re-establish his non-Savoy compositions and in this the Sir Arthur Sullivan Society has played the leading role. As a result of these efforts it has become clear that Sullivan’s gift for memorable melody, his brilliant orchestration and his sure dramatic sense extend throughout his output.

His "sacred musical drama" (his own expression) The Martyr of Antioch was composed in 1880 for the Leeds Triennial Festival of which Sullivan was Musical Director. The plot is simple enough. The Martyr, Margharita, has been converted to Christianity in 3rd Century Antioch. She is beloved by Olybius, the Roman prefect and therefore a pagan; he and Margharita’s father Callias, Priest of Apollo, beg her to re-convert, but to no avail, and she is put to death.

A recent observer, John Caldwell, has expressed the view that The Martyr was the most interesting oratorio in dramatic form before Elgar’s Gerontius. Whether or not we subscribe to that view, it is good to have here its first CD recording. This is from a live performance from the 2000 Buxton Gilbert & Sullivan Festival, sponsored by the Festival and the S.A.S.S. There is some fine solo singing from Catherine Foster (soprano: Margharita) and Stephen Brown, an ardently lyrical tenor (Olybius). In smaller roles I would mention Gilliam Knight, highly respected in Savoy and other roles and a Dame Carrithers soundalike as a Priestess of Apollo, Gareth Jones (Callias) and Stephen Godward. Sullivan gives them several fine solos and duets, most memorable being Margharita’s final moving declaration of Christian faith, prefigured in the orchestral Introduction. This, for me, recalls the In Memoriam overture.

Much of The Martyr’s 79 or so minutes could have come out of the Savoy operas. It is placed chronologically between Pirates and Patience. However this should perhaps be put the other way round as Sullivan’s "serious" and "operetta" styles are scarcely different considered in purely musical terms. Probably the academics' tunnel vision, alluded to above, may be put down to jealousy that Sullivan made more money – even if he lost it – than they did. Particularly is this true of the choruses, pagan and Christian. For all the solemnities of the once-popular "Brother Thou Art Gone Before Us", the music for the pagans, is more direct and attractive. A parallel in this can be found in Handel’s favourite oratorio Theodora, whose plot has many similarities with The Martyr.

Richard Balcombe secures a committed and accomplished performance from his forces and while occasionally one has to bear in mind this is a "live" recording, the release is highly recommendable in shedding light on a long-dark corner of English oratorio. There appears to have been no performances of it between 1914 and 1983. The booklet unfortunately does not print the words and something appears to have gone amiss with its reprinting of Sullivan’s preface to the published edition. These shortcomings do not seriously affect my warm recommendation.
Philip Scowcroft

See also review by Arthur Baker

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