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.
See also reviews by Raymond
Walker, and Chris