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Georges BIZET (1838–1875)
The Fair Maid of Perth - Opera in four acts sung in English (1866)

Catherine Glover … Gwen Catley (soprano)
Mab, Queen of the Gypsies … Lorely Dyer (soprano)
Harry Smith … Richard Lewis (tenor)
Duke of Rothsay … Trefor Jones (baritone)
Ralph … Norman Walker (bass)
Simon Glover … Owen Brannigan (bass)
A Nobleman … David Holman (tenor)
Major-Domo … George Stern Scott (bass)
BBC Theatre Chorus
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Thomas Beecham
rec. broadcast, 5-6 June 1949, BBC Studio 1, Maida Vale, BBC Third Programme
[73.08 + 61.25]

This is a deliciously nostalgic issue: hearing again the Serenade which so many seemed to be whistling or humming in the 1950s; the sound of a turntable; the occasional distortion of sound with full orchestra at forte; thinking of Beecham’s determination to show Covent Garden what they had lost. So much nostalgia, so much to enjoy.
This was the 1949 BBC broadcast with Beecham conducting the Royal Philharmonic, the orchestra which he himself had formed only three years previously in the aftermath of his fall-out with the new Covent Garden management. It was not that he had a musical point to prove, but perhaps there is an added frisson to his conducting in those years: certainly it appears so on these discs.
Here is music that he understood thoroughly with his particular love of French composers. Here is a group of singers from whom he extracts some of the strongest performances. When reviewing the re-broadcast in 1979 Philip Hope-Wallace wrote that Beecham could give this music “…delicacy and vitality all his own” – a quote in the accompanying leaflet which cannot be improved upon.
We are now nearly another thirty years on since Hope-Wallace wrote his review. Whereas he also wrote that the “…recording…does not sound its age…”, I think that it now does. Standard 1940s BBC English sounds just that. The more than occasional very refined accents of both Gwen Catley (Catherine Glover) and Lorely Dyer (Queen of the Gypsies) gives this away. It does not offend: it is yet another example of the ‘delicious nostalgia’.
This is a digitally re-mastered issue. Whilst in my ivory tower and listening with the volume turned up on not particularly sophisticated equipment I can occasionally hear the turntable and the very occasional ‘thump’; but what I do not know is how good or how bad the original discs were and therefore how much has been achieved by the re-mastering. What I can say without fear of contradiction is that what has been achieved gave me great pleasure as it will to disc purchasers and listeners. The occasional turntable noise and hiss brought back happy memories and helped to date this recording which is better for that. It is another delicious reminder that we have the privilege of Beecham, early Lewis, Brannigan et al.
Early Lewis indeed: not young Lewis: he was 35 at the date of this recording and effectively at the start of his distinguished career. Mellifluous was his voice - everyone says so – and so it is here. Clear diction, powerful dynamics, controlled and balanced interaction with co-singers, with tone and colouring second to none.
If the hero needs lyricism and Lewis delivers it in bucket-loads then the heroine needs coloratura, but not the dramatic coloratura of recent years; more the early lighter and brittle coloratura, particularly for the ‘mad’ ballad. This is just what Catley provides: a sound with the potential for some mischievous flightiness that can be tipped over into the demented. She leaps to mid-note, trills and when Bizet demands the run of accidentals for the discomforting sound of the asylum-bound she throws them off almost nonchalantly.
If elsewhere, at forte, the coloratura sound is a little piercing, it is more than compensated for by stunning piano high notes and vocal acting sharp focus. With Lewis the combination of voices achieves a remarkable balance – a perfect example of which is the Valentine request (track 4). Altogether a performance to relish.
The same can be said of Dyer’s Mab, Queen of the gypsies. Without the same opportunity for florid vocal display Dyer’s performance is strongly supportive and her scene with Jones demonstrates an excellent clarity of sound with diction to match.
It would be anachronistic to say that Brannigan’s Simon Glover is a reminder of his Gilbert and Sullivan recordings for Glyndebourne because they succeeded this performance by some ten years. However, there is an undoubted Gilbert and Sullivan flavour in this opera as there are traces of other composers throughout: both pre- and post- the 1866 composition. It is almost a case of putting on an anorak and going composer-spotting: Rossini, Donizetti, Verdi and Wagner to name a few plus Bizet’s later Carmen. However, I digress.
Brannigan uses his big bass to great expressive effect in the smaller role of Simon Glover (Catherine’s father). Norman Walker (Ralph) is the other main bass role and his deep brown voice carries off the drunken scene with total conviction. With Brannigan he does all that can be done to rescue the start of Act 4 with its unimpressive musical writing.
If they are vocally effortless, the same cannot always be said of Trefor Jones (Duke of Rothsay). Notwithstanding the occasional vocal stress, his distinctive timbre and resonant baritone is an excellent foil for the voice of Lewis. The early quartet (track 6 Lewis/Jones/Catley/Dyer) can be described as musical fun as well as precision singing and strong dynamics.
The Chorus are in fine disciplined voice: crisp, accurate and enthusiastically making an urgent contribution. All that said we must return to the orchestral contribution. Beecham and his Philharmonic are on excellent form: from strident chords to smooth, almost voluptuous, string sounds. Now driving forward and now holding back and giving perfect support to the vocalists.
Whilst the diction makes a libretto almost unnecessary, perhaps the accompanying leaflet synopsis could have been a little fuller and the opportunity taken to include the names of the soloists with the track details and/or the track numbers included in the synopsis. Also the track breaks themselves are not always where you would expect them to appear but this may well have more to do with the original discs.
I would like to conclude with another quote from another critic: this one appears on the Beulah web-site and is of Alan Blyth writing in Gramophone in December 2000: “… play … (the track) … where the Serenade is reprised by the tenor and soprano to Beecham’s tender accompaniment and you’ll be captivated, as I was.” I cannot improve upon that: go on, play it all and risk being captivated by so much more.
Robert McKechnie




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