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Edward GERMAN (1862-1936)
Tom Jones - A comic opera in three Acts (1907)
Marianne Hellgren Staykov (soprano) - Sophia Weston; Richard Morrison (tenor) - Tom Jones; Heather Shipp (mezzo) - Honour; Donald Maxwell (baritone) - Squire Western; Simon Butteriss (baritone) - Gregory; Richard Suart (baritone) - Ben Partridge; Rachel Harland (soprano) - Betty; Elizabeth Menezes (soprano) - Peggy
National Festival Chorus and Orchestra/David Russell Hulme
rec. Concert Hall, Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester, England. 2008
NAXOS 8.660270-71 [75:49 + 34:20]
Experience Classicsonline

Only one operetta of the four Edward German composed is represented in full on disc. That sole entry is an old EMI recording of Merrie England with William McAlpine and June Bronhill in the 1960s (CfP 757 6727). The arrival of Tom Jones is a welcome addition as it allows a better assessment of German’s quality of penmanship. Over the last few years CD recordings of German’s symphonies and theatre incidental music have appeared on the Dutton and Marco Polo. A 1966 EMI highlights disc of Tom Jones (coupled with The Beggar’s Opera) was reissued a few years ago on Classics for Pleasure CfP 759 7227 in a recording by the largely forgotten Gilbert Vinter with the Nigel Brooks chorus. Naxos offer us the full opera. 

When Tom Jones was staged in 1907 it was greeted with success that equaled that of Merrie England premiered five years earlier. The new opera was believed by many to be German’s operatic masterpiece. Its success was understandable since the composer deliberately used a similar format, structure and ballad-style to that he provided in Merrie England

German was born in deep country (Whitchurch, Salop) and had received a good grounding in musical education at the Royal Academy of Music. He provided incidental music for a number of Shakespearian plays that was much admired. Unusually, he was given a rare opportunity to discover the secrets of a successful operatic composer when invited to complete Emerald Isle, the comic opera Arthur Sullivan left unfinished when he unexpectedly died. The D’Oyly Carte establishment had decided that German was the most competent craftsman in Britain at the time to complete the master’s work and entrusted him with the task, which he did competently. Thus German had an unexpected operatic foundation on which to build his newly found talents.



In this first full recording of the complete Tom Jones we have a fresh and sprightly reading by David Russell Hulme. Hulme is no stranger to German, having for many years researched and studied the late 19th Century operatic tradition where German received his grounding. From the opening of Act I we can imagine a sun-drenched Somerset countryside with bustling villagers going about their business on Squire Western’s estate. German successfully creates that idyllic country charm of the olde English idiom made popular in his Nell Gwyn dances and later recalled by Coates and Grainger. The second Act is set at the Inn at Upton, … and yes the small hamlet of Upton in Somerset does exist. The Ranelagh Gardens setting for Act III may well be related to the palace gardens at Wiveliscombe near Taunton. 

To my ears, the highlights of the opera are the Introduction and Act I opening, the “Wisdom says” trio, the “Barley Mow” sextet, a haunting Barcarolle and the Morris Dance of Act III. 

There is a well-founded belief in the theatre that too many characters in a show leads to a complex plot. It may also result in insufficient exposure of a character to develop the personality sufficient to hold an audience’s interest. The characters in this comic opera are many. Thirty are catalogued in the vocal score, many of whom are individually listed in this recording. Fortunately in Tom Jones, many of these characters are embedded in the chorus and so the difficulties mentioned above do not occur. With a book fairly close to Fielding’s original novel, Squire Western, the jovial squire of the village - sung with purposeful authority by Donald Maxwell - wishes to see his mischievous and flirtatious daughter, Sophia, engaged to an insipid Mr Blifil. Sophia has other plans as she is increasingly enamoured by the advances made by villager Tom Jones, a lad who is champion of the chase and is seen as a lovable rascal by the Squire and villagers. Richard Morrison as Tom manages to provide that carefree charisma needed to attract attention and sings well with clear diction in “West Country lad”. 

Sophia, sung by Marianne Hellgren Staykov, is charming, especially in the languid and sleepy “Love makes the Heart”, admirably supported by equally fine singing by Rachel Harland (Betty) and Elizabeth Menezes (Peggy) in ‘The Barley Mow’. Betty and Peggy have little input to the plot yet are vital to the balance of numbers. Honour, Sophia’s maid is given as large a part as Sophia and sings in many numbers. Heather Shipp plays the role with the protective innocence that a servant might have for her mistress. In her two solo numbers, I found her very responsive to the situation in a cheery rendering of ‘The Green Ribbon”. 

The comedy in this opera is carried by two G&S patter-men, Simon Butteriss (the servant, Gregory) and Richard Suart (village barber, Ben). Gregory who regularly has to cart a drunken Squire off to bed delivers the zaniest of West Country numbers in “Jan Tappin oi niver did zee”, with its phrase-echoing chorus. Ben, who after an introduction reminiscent of John Wellington Wells (The Sorcerer), launches into a patter song ‘A Person of Parts’ that is amusing and well sung, yet with its off-beat Latin adds nothing to the plot’s development. Where was the writers’ joke? A laughing trio, “You have a Pretty Wit” is a jolly, vivacious piece that is engaging because of its brisk pace. 

This comic opera, with fast-flowing and witty dialogue, is given a broad West Country setting by its authors Thompson and Courtneidge with its libretto written phonetically; e.g. ‘Somersetshire’ written as ‘Zummersetsheer’, to make sure the words are delivered in the vernacular! In a budget label recording, it would be too much to expect the booklet to contain a full libretto, but one expects too much for words to be heard above a full orchestra. I would have preferred to pay a little extra for its inclusion (see Editor's Note below). Amongst the notes is an interesting section where Hulme mentions the evolution of the original production and explains the origination of three additional numbers provided at the end of CD 2. Amongst them are two very appetizing numbers: a romantic song for Sophia, “By Day and Night” and a catchy trio with skipping rhythm, “Come away” (Tom, Sophia, & Honour).
 

David Russell Hulme imbues the score with freshness in his spirited reading. The orchestra plays magnificently in the warm acoustic of the RNCM’s Concert Hall. I was amused to see that the same name, ‘Donald Maxwell’, has been copy/pasted as electronic text as artist in all track numbers yet I don’t think he plays the role of Sophia or Honour although indicated as such! 

German’s two symphonies can be found on Dutton CDLX7156/7202.

 
Raymond J Walker 

Ian Lace has also listened to this recording



This welcome new release is the first complete recording of Edward German’s comic opera. It is quite inexplicable why this jolly, tuneful operetta has remained unrecorded so long. It seems scandalous that nearly fifty years have passed since German’s most popular operetta, Merrie England was recorded in 1960 by EMI. This was re-released as a 2 CD set by its offshoot, Classics for Pleasure in 1996. That venerable recording featured June Bronhill as Bessie Throckmorton, William McAlpine as Sir Walter Raleigh and Peter Glossop as The Earl of Essex with Monica Sinclair as Queen Elizabeth.

A sprinkling of Edward German’s light music has also occasionally appeared. In 1991 Marco Polo released a CD of music by Edward German in their British Light Music series (Marco Polo 8.223419) with the Czecho-Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Adrian Leaper. It included Sophia’s Waltz Song from Tom Jones Act III as well as tuneful material from Merrie England, Nell Gwyn, Henry VIII and Romeo and Juliet.

Another Marco Polo 1994 release, 8.223695 with the RTE Concert Orchestra conducted by Andrew Penny included German’s music from Richard III and The Seasons. More recently, John Wilson conducting the BBC Concert Orchestra, has recorded German’s Symphony No. 1 with the Symphonic Poem, Hamlet; The Tempter; Romeo and Juliet; and The Willow Song on Dutton Epoch CDLX7156; and Symphony No. 2 ‘The Norwich’ with German’s Symphonic Suite ‘Leeds’ on Dutton Epoch CDLX 7202

Before I go on to discuss this latest release, I have to say that it really is quite amazing how diffident we English are about our composers and their music. Leaving aside the case of British composers of more serious music, English light music has largely been ignored with notable exceptions since the 1990s of the outputs of record companies such as Hyperion and Guild.

The operetta is, based on Henry Fielding ‘s greatest work, Tom Jones (1749), a meticulously constructed picaresque novel telling the convoluted and hilarious tale of how Tom, a foundling, came into a fortune and finds romance with Sophia, Squire Western’s daughter. For the operetta, Fielding’s raciness was reined in to protect the sensibilities of Edwardian audiences. Tom Jones was produced at London’s Apollo Theatre in 1907 and ran there for 110 performances.

Conductor, David Russell Hulme is clearly passionate about Tom Jones; he made a strong contribution to the recording’s booklet, see below. He leads the National Festival Orchestra and Chorus and his soloists in a wholehearted and sparkling performance with many keenly observed, animated solos. The orchestra respond heartily to German’s lovely melodies, so beautifully crafted and orchestrated. German was the natural successor to Sullivan - indeed German worked, although not always very harmoniously, with W.S. Gilbert - and the influence of Sullivan can be heard at odd moments but German’s own original voice predominates. Elgar and German were friends and the impact of Elgar on German’s music sometimes shines through. Take, for instance, Sophia’s Act II aria, ‘Love maketh the heart a garden fair’ - so redolent of golden Elgarian wistfulness. ‘The Uncrowned King of Light Music’, Eric Coates was beginning to write his songs about this time: 1906-1910 - his first published orchestral piece, his Miniature Suite came in 1911. Coates admired German. I was reminded vividly of Eric Coates’s style and orchestrations while listening to Tom’s Act III aria, ‘If love’s content’.

The Overture sets the mood of overall joyousness and exultation with its hunt motifs, romance and delightful, memorably tuneful rustic dances. Act III’s justly famous and delightful opening ‘Morris Dance’, is splendidly, vivaciously played here, rhythms nicely taut, dynamics strongly contrasted. German had the happy knack of composing dance music that seemed so appropriate to the period of the productions, be it the Merrie England of Tudor times or the 18th century setting of Tom Jones. There are so many orchestral delights and this review would become unbearably long if I included them all. Listen, for instance, to how German’s orchestra comments between the sung lines of ‘The Green Ribbon’. Listen to how the violins trip along daintily as the innocent young maid goes to the fair to seek the green ribbon to tie in her hair and the clarinet's wittily, sly comments at the young man’s motivations in offering to buy her the ribbon if she will dance with him - and other things afterwards, for “she gave him her heart then and there…”.

Mezzo-soprano, Heather Shipp as Honour, Sophia’s maid, delights in the wry humour of this Act III song, ‘The Green Ribbon’. But the real highlight of the show is the lyric soprano voice of Marianne Hellgren Staykov singing the part of Sophia. Just listen to her honeyed tones and clarity of diction in her lovely tender Act I song, ‘Today my spinet’ and secure colatura agility in that famous Act III waltz song ‘For tonight’ She is partnered by a sturdy-voiced Richard Morrison as Tom Jones, muscular but yearning for better things in his Act I song “West Country Lad’. He is ideally matched with Staykov their voices beautifully blending and entwining in their duets, especially the enchanting Act I finale song, ‘For aye, my love’. As Squire Western, Donald Maxwell has a pleasing oaken voice and he is expressive enough even if his West Country accent is a bit amiss. German’s operettas are enlivened by their patter songs. Here a sextet, including Honour and maids and servants to Squire Western deliver a hilarious ‘The Barley Mow’ with all six becoming ever more inebriated and their West Country accents are much more convincing. I should add that the extended 10-minute-or-so finales to Acts I and II enchant. 
Usually so stingy with their notes, Naxos has provided a 16-page booklet with this release that includes a biographical note about Edward German by John Prince, a commentary on Tom Jones by this production’s conductor, David Russell Hulme and a plot synopsis including track references. The operetta’s lyrics can be accessed at www.naxos.com/libretti/660270.htm

Wonderful and too long in being recorded. One of my recordings of the year. Now, Naxos, Hyperion, Epoch - let’s have some of Ivor Novello’s and Noel Coward’s productions.

Ian Lace 

Note
The libretto is available as a PDF download from the Naxos website.

 
 
 


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