Donald TOVEY (1875-1940)
The Bride of Dionysus – excerpts (1907-1918)
Sally Silver (soprano); Yvonne Fontane (mezzo); Robert Johnston (tenor); Michael Bundy (baritone)
Belfast Philharmonic Choir/Christopher Bell
Ulster Orchestra/George Vass
rec. Ulster Hall, Belfast, 28-31 May 2009
World premiere recording
Full tracklist at end of review
DUTTON EPOCH CDLX 7241 [77:49]

Long after their deaths composers like Tovey benefit from advocates – the angels who bring about the renaissance of their otherwise lost music. For Tovey that angel has been Peter Shore. Without his advocacy – his commitment of time and expense and powers of persuasion – Tovey’s music would hardly have struggled free from the dust. Now we have Tovey’s Symphony and his Cello Concerto (the one derided by Constant Lambert) recorded in new recordings from Martin Anderson’s Toccata and from Symposium in historical and technologically flawed acetates from the 1930s. His Piano Concerto shares a Hyperion CD with the Mackenzie Concerto. There are quite a few chamber works and the two piano trios can be heard on Toccata (review; review). I trust that someone will pick up the other chamber works including the two string quartets. The score for the violin sonata seems to have disappeared from sight – unless you know better.

The Prelude rises through smooth and serene foothills to assertive heroic heights. This is an ascent also experienced in the orchestral opening to Act 2 Part 2. It’s a triumphant blend of majestic tributaries from Wagner and Brahms Fourth Symphony. The ticking-chugging-buzzing energy of this score is remarkable. As illustration try the start of the Act 2 Part 2. The heroic voices of Robert Johnston and Michael Bundy place them securely in the helden realms of Franz Schmidt’s Johannes in The Book of the Seven Seals. Sally Silver and Yvonne Fontane have silvery pure voices, strong on clarity of diction yet imbued with humanity and with the ability to act with the voice. Sally Silver is also the ideal soprano for the RVW operas. There is the same high nobility in this opera as in that work – again Act 2 Part 2 makes the case. The mastery of the brass benches and their roaring aureate tone make you think of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. It also for me reminded me of the exalted brass writing in Bruno Walter’s First symphony (CPO 777 163-2). Tovey time after time shows his mastery of pacing and timing of ideas and orchestration. While I have mentioned Brahms and Wagner there are also some deftly euphoric pages (tr. 6) that point towards the operatic Korngold. It’s not all perfervid passion; Act 3, Part 2, Scene 6 is deliciously serene. The long Act 3 Scene 9 and finale rings out with something approaching religious fervour constantly lit by the blow-torch of white hot passions. There are times when Tovey’s writing looks across the heights to the more possessed pages of Delius’s A Mass of Life. That he could sustain such invention across such a mammoth score is a matter of wonder.

The Ulster Orchestra do not sell short the majesty and mystery of this score and attain and hold that level throughout approaching eighty minutes. The Belfast Philharmonic Choir are simply magnificent in grandeur of tone and in the most immaculately accurate unanimity of singing as can be heard for example near the start of tr. 9 where the Dionysian atmosphere communicates in the most lustrous tone.

A truly grand opera in which passion and Brahmsian nobility commingle amid the most exalted lyrical writing.

The libretto is by Robert Calverley Trevelyan and the sung texts can be down-loaded from the Dutton Vocalion website.

The uphill gradient of getting this recording made can be traced in Peter Shore’s article. The journey has been well justified. The disc serves to underline the need for a full and no doubt very expensive recording of the whole opera. It also has intrinsic and all-conquering satisfactions. It’s an extraordinary work.

Rob Barnett

Full Tracklist
Act 1, Prelude – Orchestra [5:47]
Act 1, Scene 1 – Ariadne, Phaedra, Theseus, King Minos, Chorus [12:20]
Act 2, Part 1, Scenes 6 & 7 – Ariadne, Theseus [5:20]
Act 2, Part 2, Opening – Orchestra [6:24]
Act 2, Part 2, Scenes 10, 11 & 13 – Orchestra, Theseus, Phaedra [7:28]
Act 3, Part 1, Scenes 1 & 5 – Phaedra, Chorus [13:37]
Act 3, Part 2, Scene 6 – Chromis [6:27]
Act 3, Part 2, Scene 7 – Ariadne [6:05]
Act 3, Part 2, Scene 9 & Finale – Dionysus, Ariadne, Chorus [14:15]