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Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
Sir John in Love - opera in four acts (1924-1928)
Libretto by the composer after Shakespeare’s ‘Merry Wives of Windsor’
Terry Jenkins (tenor) - Shallow
Rowland Jones (baritone) - Sir Hugh Evans
Bernard Dickerson (tenor) - Slender
David Johnston (tenor) - Peter Simple
John Noble (baritone) - Page
Raimund Herincx (baritone) - Sir John Falstaff
John Winfield (tenor) - Bardolph
Mark Rowlinson (tenor) - Nym
Richard Van Allan (bass) - Pistol
Wendy Eathorne (soprano) - Anne Page
Felicity Palmer (mezzo-sop) - Mrs Page
Elizabeth Bainbridge (mezzo-sop) - Mrs Ford
Robert Tear (tenor) - Fenton
Gerald English (tenor) - Dr. Caius
Lawrence Richard (bass) - Rugby
Helen Watts (contralto) - Mrs Quickly
Colin Wheatley (baritone) - The Host of the Garter Inn
Robert Lloyd (bass) - Ford
Brian Ethridge (baritone) - John
Stephen Varcoe (baritone) - Robert
John Alldis Choir/John Alldis (chorus master)
New Philharmonia Orchestra/Meredith Davies
Recorded in the No.1 Studio Abbey Road, London on 4-13 July 1974, ADD (digitally remastered 1997)
EMI CLASSICS CMS 5 66123 2 [2CDs: 63:56+66:37]

This re-release from EMI Classics of the Vaughan Williams comic opera Sir John in Love from 1975, makes a most welcome return to the catalogues. I was listening to the work for the first time and to be frank it exceeded all my expectations. Perhaps I had fallen into the trap of subconsciously thinking, ‘if it’s not played often then it can’t be any good.’

The operas of Vaughan Williams are his least known works although this is slowly being addressed on CD. These rarely get a look-in compared to those of his contemporary Benjamin Britten who had the tremendous advantage of having a purpose-built opera house at Aldeburgh where his works would take priority.

Many influential judges consider Sir John in Love a large improvement on its predecessor Hugh The Drover. It has the clear advantage of a Shakespearean libretto which Vaughan Williams so skilfully adapted. The opera is a most romantic work with much expanded love music and ravishing harmonies. I found the music richly melodic and entrancing too. At times I wished that the layer of voices could be taken off to hear it as a purely orchestral work.

Sir John in Love was the only stage work to which Vaughan Williams gave the title opera. It was written between 1924 and 1928. In terms of date of completion it is preceded by The Shepherds of the Delectable Mountains and Hugh the Drover (Love in the Stocks) then followed by the operas The Poisoned Kiss (The Empress and the Necromancer), Riders to the Sea and The Pilgrim’s Progress (which incorporated the majority of The Shepherds of the Delectable Mountains).

The libretto was based on Shakespeare’s comic play ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’ with interpolations from other authors and other Shakespeare plays. Vaughan Williams originally planned to call the opera The Fat Knight after the main character Sir John Falstaff but as the work, both musically and textually, began to take on a more romantic form he altered the title to Sir John in Love. The work is sometimes said to lack a deep undercurrent and is rarely performed professionally largely owing to the high cast number of twenty soloists. This is an impractical number for an opera, making production extremely complicated, creating difficulties for casting and making the whole affair much more costly than most operas. We should bear in mind that it had to wait for fourteen years for its first professional performance in 1946.

One critic, H.C. Colles, found the opera’s orchestral score to be, harsh and ungrateful to the ear. Probably he had only heard amateur performances of the work. This viewpoint certainly contrasts with my opinion of the opera. I consider it to be of high musical value and that is also the view of Vaughan Williams’ biographer, Michael Kennedy, who considers the work to be, most mellifluous and sweet. He finds it inexplicable why this high-spirited piece has failed to find a place in the repertory.

Beautiful and exciting music abounds throughout. On tracks 1 and 19 on CD 2 there is music as elegiac as in any slow movement from one of his symphonies. On CD 2 track 28 there is a passage featuring the full orchestra complete with Wagnerian horn calls; it just doesn’t get much more exciting than this. Furthermore on CD 2 track 23 the orchestral passage known as Greensleeves is heard. This is the best known and arguably the most beautiful piece of English folk music ever written. Perhaps someone might one day construct an arrangement of an orchestral score or even a symphony from the opera; after all in 1931 Vaughan Williams made the cantata In Windsor Forest from choral extracts from the opera.

Vaughan Williams does not make any striking use of the leitmotif. However various characters do have their own musical themes, for example Anne Page is followed throughout with beautiful melodies. The composer unashamedly included several of his favourite folk songs in the score in addition to composing an original ‘folk tune’ of his own.

The cast is strong with hardly a weak link in the twenty soloists. Most notable is Raimund Herincx whose casting as Sir John Falstaff was a master-stroke and is the cornerstone of the recording. Clearly in his prime here, Herincx is most convincing and displays an exceptionally clear and deeply ripe baritone. As Anne Page soprano Wendy Eathorne seems to wobble at times but sounds very fine when in full flow. Robert Tear, as Anne Pages’ lover Fenton, is a rich and expressive tenor whose distinctive vibrato has never been problematic to my ears. I would also like to single out the baritone of Colin Wheatley as The Host of the Garter Inn and tenor Gerald English as Dr. Caius for particular praise for their excellent performances.

Conductor Meredith Davies comes across as a sympathetic advocate who seems to be revelling in the music; swift in pace but in total control of the proceedings. The New Philharmonia Orchestra evidently love the rare opportunity of performing this music demonstrating some fine playing. The John Alldis Choir are in fine voice too.

Recorded back in 1974 at the Abbey Road Studios in London the sound is clear and well balanced. In my opinion the performance sounds strangely dated - certainly all of its 29 years. Could the reason be that the style of singing from the mezzo-soprano and contralto voices has changed over the years? Furthermore the light tenor voice of Bernard Dickerson as Slender, who reminds me of Peter Pears, also sounds as if from another era.

EMI Classics have provided a superb booklet complete with an informative essay from Michael Kennedy, a synopsis and full libretto. The recording of this rich and colourful score, so acclaimed since its original release back in 1975, still sounds in fine condition. Combined with an excellent performance it is well worth buying today.

Michael Cookson

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