Aureole etc.

Golden Age singers

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Faure songs
Charlotte de Rothschild (soprano);

  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
Sir John in Love - opera in four acts (1928) [130.03]
Shallow - Terry Jenkins (ten)
Sir Hugh Evans - Rowland Jones (bar)
Slender - Bernard Dickerson (ten)
Peter Simple - David Johnston (ten)
Page - John Noble (bar)
Sir John Falstaff - Raimund Herincx (bar)
Bardolph - John Winfield (ten)
Nym - Mark Rowlinson (bar)
Pistol - Richard Van Allan (bass)
Anne Page - Wendy Eathorne (sop)
Mrs Page - Felicity Palmer (mz)
Mrs Ford - Elizabeth Bainbridge (mz)
Fenton - Robert Tear (ten)
Dr Caius - Gerald English (ten)
Rugby - Lawrence Richard (bass)
Mrs Quickly - Helen Watts (alto)
Host of the Garter - Colin Wheatley (bar)
Ford - Robert Lloyd (bass)
John - Brian Ethridge (bar)
Robert - Stephen Varcoe (bar)
John Alldis Choir
New Philharmonia Orchestra/Meredith Davies
rec 4-13 July 1974, No. 1 Studio, Abbey Rd, London
EMI CLASSICS CDM 5 66123 2 [63.58+66.37]


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Vaughan Williams had a lifelong involvement with opera. In this he can be compared with Tchaikovsky and Dvořák both of whom had operatic aspirations but despite isolated or modest success became better known for their symphonies. The variety of Vaughan Williams' achievement in the operatic field is multiform. The ballad opera Hugh the Drover (wince-makingly rustic - frocks and farmers without the tragic Hardy element) contrasts with the succinct and powerful Synge one-acter Riders to the Sea. The Poisoned Kiss is one step away from a musical and contains some of the most instantly engaging music he ever wrote. This contrasts with Pilgrim's Progress - a major work he studiously avoided calling an opera - terming it instead A Morality in the similitude of a dream (a touch of Martinů's Julietta here)! At his death he left only sketches for an opera Tom the Rhymer but in the 1930s he had completed Sir John in Love - a Shakespearean romantic comedy. Sir John was the last opera RVW saw having attended performances of it in July and August 1958.

Sir John drew from the composer some of his most appealing music. He wrote it between 1924 and 1928. It represents a 'step-change' in language from the twee Hugh the Drover. Hugh was completed in 1914; premiered by Sargent in 1924. Some of the material for Sir John originated from music he had written for Frank Benson's Stratford-upon-Avon Shakespeare productions. He originally intended calling it the Fat Knight but as the romantic element rose up within the growing score he switched the title.

We must recall RVW’s close friendship with Holst who himself wrote at about this time At the Boar's Head, his own Falstaffian opera. RVW tapped into Holst's use of folksong in that work and wove songs of the English countryside into the score. However, as he pointed out, the folk material occupies only 15 of the 120 minutes of this score. Even where folk material is overtly introduced there are touches and tunings that surprise. Thus in tr.22 (CD2) there are Iberian spicings and seasonings and at other times the woodland enchantment seems dressed in drifts of moonlit snow like a presentiment of Finzi's In Terra Pax, Rootham's Ode on the Morning of Christ's Nativity (how shameful that this fine work and Rootham's Second Symphony remain unrecorded) or The Oxen in Hodie. In tr.23 (CD2) Greensleeves is presented in its warmest plumage, a woodland soliloquy - caressingly serene.

While it is best known as a Shakespearean opera the composer interpolated settings of words by Thomas Middleton, Ben Jonson, John Still, Thomas Campion, Christopher Marlowe, John Fletcher, George Peele, Nicholas Udall, Philip Sidney, Richard Edwards and Philip Rosseter. This made of the work the sort of anthology piece we also find in Hodie and Dona Nobis Pacem.

Of this recording and performance golden opinions remain. Analogue it may be but the natural sounding and analytical recording still flatters and delights. The orchestral image is smashingly put across. You should try the last few moments of tr. 15 of CD2 in which the yawping and whooping horns are given their glorious head.

This is my father's choice is most lovingly heartbreakingly sung by Wendy Eathorne as Anne seemingly doomed to the arms of the slack-brained Slender; Weep eyes break heart indeed! Her voice is superbly counter-pointed by the oboe. The sequence moves directly into the emotional complexity of her true lover Fenton's music which speaks of the turbulence of the Sixth Symphony. This then segues into Have you seen but a bright lily grow. Fenton is sung by Robert Tear whose voice was at its transient but delightful peak. The music that entwines and speaks for the lovers is Delian in its intensity but never curdled - always cleanly presented. Tracks 5-7 (CD1) are a wonderful introduction to Vaughan Williams' most tender and most passionate inspirations. And after some stage comedics we return to this vein in Gerald English's 'I will my self marry Anne Page'.

The Warlockian-Moeran hurly-burly of works such as Five Tudor Portraits flickers and boozes its way through the drinking songs of Falstaff’s dissolute cronies (Bardolph, Nym and Pistol). The 'maltworms' also wriggle and carouse through When I was a bachelor.

Another highlight comes in the storm of passions in Ford's ‘cuckold’ aria which would go well by itself in recital. It is furious and full of emotional bile. It fades into the lovely When daisies pied, sung by Mistresses Ford and Page: Felicity Palmer and Elizabeth Bainbridge (trs 14 and 15 respectively).

Also irresistible is Sigh no more ladies just after the comedy of Falstaff's two identical love letters being read out to each other by Ford and Page. An exemplar of comic timing. This exultant writing is the stuff of which the Five Tudor Portraits was written; another highlight at tr.19 on CD1. That same Skelton work is prefigured by the dancing delight of There is one mistress Ford in tr.22. Listen to this and then compare the troubadour song My Pretty Bess in the final panel of the Tudor Portraits.

The four acts of Sir John are accommodated two to each CD and each of the discs is generously tracked: 28 on CD1 and 32 on CD2.

The authoritative and wide-ranging notes are by Michael Kennedy. Texts are given in full.

For those wondering about trying out a new opera in English let me assure them that this is a score in which the riches of touchingly orchestrated melody are to the fore. The singers 'act' as well as sing. Slender is, for example, sung in a way that convinces that he is not the brightest coin in the purse.

This is not a recording of a live performance but there are a few limited stage noises and some directional information to keep you in touch with activity on the mind's stage. The singing is full of life with voices matched in their fallibility and their greenness to the characters being played. Meredith Davies has a supple and responsive approach to a score that, allowing for the occasional piece of lumpen cod humour, is a treasury of vitality. It is the source of some of the most limpidly beautiful melodic invention in British music. This applies to all the lovers: not just to Fenton and Anne but even the foolish and portly knight and the mature and merry wives of Windsor Forest.

Banish fears of clod-hopping dances, embarrassing smock-Morris dances and ye olde humour. While those fears are sadly well-placed in the case of stretches of Hugh The Drover, this Shakespearean fantasy is cut from an altogether more subtle yet dazzling cloth. This is an opera-entertainment - fleshy, bumptious, joyous, bibulous and poignant.

Rob Barnett

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