Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, an English composer nicknamed ‘The African Mahler’, died tragically young. This Heritage release features his most famous work, Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast. The score was completed in May 1898 and was published before the first performance was given. Interest in the work, due to sales of the sheet music, was huge even before a single note of it had been heard in public. Great publicity preceded the premiere and many people were refused admission. One person who was accommodated was Sir Arthur Sullivan, who said, "I'm always an ill man now, my boy, but I'm coming to hear your music tonight even if I have to be carried". The premiere took place on 11 November 1898 at the Royal College of Music under the baton of his teacher, Sir Charles Villiers Stanford. Sir Hubert Parry described the event as "one of the most remarkable events in modern English musical history". Its success was immediate and international and Sargent’s famous stereo recording, issued by HMV in 1962, deserves a warm welcome back into the catalogue.
Hiawatha's Wedding Feast must have been a culture shock when put into the context of the old-fashioned British Victorian choral tradition. Everything about it still sounds lively and fresh. It’s quite fitting that Sullivan was in the audience to witness the first performance. For those who don’t know the piece, I would suggest that if you like the Gilbert & Sullivan operettas and the orchestral works of Edward German then you will almost certainly respond most favourably to Hiawatha. Sargent was at home with G&S and he is in his element here. The music throughout is a constant delight, melodious and extremely well crafted. The orchestration is colourful and in this recording the balance with the chorus is just about perfect. The quality of the sound totally belies its age and the Heritage transfer is sparkling with good stereo spread, depth and an attractive ambient warmth around the singers. The Philharmonia is at its formidable peak. Just occasionally the chorus momentarily rushes ahead of itself but overall this is a fine recording and I enjoyed it immensely. Richard Lewis delivers a stylish performance of the one solo item in the piece, Onaway! Awake, Beloved!
For the rest of the programme I would advise caution. The music is classic British Light Music at its best and the performances are fine but please bear in mind that the recordings were made in the 1930s. They are authoritative enough but even these expert transfers can’t hide the fact that the sound is primitive and you need to “listen through it” so to speak. Treat them as historical bonuses. The wonderful Petite Suite de Concert can be supplemented by the dashing stereo version by Ronald Corp on Hyperion. This CD is worth the outlay for Hiawatha alone. My only criticism would be that despite the choir being captured with laudable clarity, a printed libretto wouldn’t have a gone amiss.