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Sir Arthur SULLIVAN (1842-1900)
Macbeth - Incidental Music to Shakespeare's play (1888) [54:34]
Marmion Overture (1867) [12:42]
The Tempest - Incidental Music to Shakespeare's play (1860-62) [59:15]
Simon Callow (speaker), Mary Bevan (soprano), Fflur Wyn (soprano) BBC
Singers BBC Concert Orchestra/John Andrews
rec. Watford Colosseum, England, 3-4 February & 10-11 March 2015 DUTTON CDLX7331 SACD [67:16 + 59:15]
One of my great regrets is to have lived in a time when the use of extensive incidental music to clothe great theatrical works has fallen by the wayside. The simple economics of such an enterprise makes live musical accompaniment of any kind out of reach for all but the largest companies such as the National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company. Even they would rarely consider working on the sheer scale of these Sullivan scores. Will Parry's informative liner notes tell us that an orchestra of 46 accompanied Henry Irving's famed 1888 production of Macbeth for which Arthur Sullivan provided the score. No new piece of musical theatre these days would boast half that number in the pit.
Not only did this scale allow Sullivan to lavish large orchestral effects on the play, but also he was at the height of his considerable powers. The score was written between The Yeoman of the Guard and The Gondoliers, two of his very finest Savoy operettas. This very fine double CD set from Dutton presents as full a recording of this score as there has ever been. For that, Sullivan's admirers will be eternally grateful. But for the less completist collector there are issues which Parry outlines.
Sullivan was, according to Irving, the ideal collaborator—happy to produce a score that was wholly the servant of the script and the director's vision. As a result, certain scenes are extensively scored and in others there is little or nothing. The final two Acts are served by Preludes only and indeed there is no scoring at all for any of Lady Macbeth's scenes. According to contemporary reviews, the score was a highlight of the production. For the modern listener, however, with only the music to act as a guide there does seem to be a lack of balance. This disc corrects it by placing the previously mentioned Preludes to the closing Acts out of their original order earlier in the score. Whilst this might make musical sense, I would rather have heard them in the correct order. The last musicological problem is this: Sullivan added and amended significant sections in the theatre while the play was in production, so never never made their way into the final published score. The surviving performance material makes it clear, however, that these 'missing' sections were significant musically and dramatically. Unfortunately, a fire in 1898 destroyed much of Irving's stage goods including, it is assumed, the actual performing material for Macbeth.
So what we are given here is as much of Sullivan's score as still exists, performed with great skill by the ever-reliable BBC Concert Orchestra conducted by John Andrews. To give theatrical context to both Macbeth and The Tempest—which fills the second disc in this set—all of the melodramas are performed accompanying the unmistakeable tones of Simon Callow. Callow is becoming something of a specialist in the field of spoken voice with orchestra. I particularly enjoyed his recordings of Elgar's War works on Somm with the BBC CO. Elsewhere, he has produced an excellent Survivor from Warsaw and the Chandos/Andrew Davis complete set of Elgar's Starlight Express [which I have not heard]. Dutton have made the choice—perhaps economic—not to have a cast of actors, but instead rely on Callow's vocal dexterity to create the entire company himself. Given that another of Callow's specialities is recreating Charles Dickens' famous public readings where the author voiced all of his characters to virtuoso effect, I must admit I was far less comfortable with the results here in Macbeth than in The Tempest.
The choice has been made to give the Scottish characters Scottish accents. Whether or not Henry Irving bothered with such niceties I do not know, but rather doubt. Because Callow is voicing all the parts, he gives them a very wide range of Scottish accents. My ear for accents is not sensitive enough to know how good the accents are as such but it does not seem wholly convincing that they are so markedly different. The Witches do not have Scottish accents. Instead, they are given rather grotesque, but effective, vocal caricatures. As a one-off listen and to appreciate how score and voice are integrated, I enjoyed listening to this but I would not imagine revisiting it for pleasure very often. Call me a pedant, but I find it dramatically inconsistent that the two choral interpolations by the excellent BBC singers are sung totally accent-free and with actually rather cut-glass pronunciation! As an aside, it is hard not to hear the strong influence of Mendelssohn's A Midsummer Night's Dream here. Sullivan was, after all, the first to be awarded the Mendelssohn Scholarship in 1856 to study in that Mecca for 19th Century composers, Leipzig.
Sullivan's skill is never in doubt but somehow some of his individuality as a composer has been lost in the collaborative act. Back in 1992-1993, Andrew Penny recorded for Marco Polo a group of four discs of Sullivan's lesser-known music with the RTE Concert Orchestra. One collection of incidental music included seven excerpts from the Macbeth score, totalling some seventeen minutes of music. In quantative terms, this clearly cannot compete with the generously complete setting here on Dutton. In musically qualitative terms, the old Marco Polo disc includes most of the musical highlights. For sure, the new recording is richer and fuller, but the listener does have to listen to quite a substantial amount of fragmentary music before the more substantial "set pieces" come along.
The Overture—included in the Penny suite and also elsewhere in collections of rare British Overtures on Hyperion and Chandos—is certainly well worth hearing and deserves to be better known. If it lacks the sheer ear-tickling melodic memorability of the operetta scores, it is strong on atmosphere and drama. The first disc is completed by the valuable inclusion of another Sullivan Concert Overture, Marmion after Walter Scott's epic poem of the same name. This once popular poem is all but forgotten today, except for one quotation is has bequeathed to common usage: "... what a tangled web we weave....". At the time of its first performance in 1877, it was warmly received—and justly so. Sullivan used a heavily cut version of the score as the Overture to another Incidental music score, Irving's King Arthur in 1895 which has been recorded in this curtailed version. But this new recording is the premiere of the full version. And very fine it is too, again well worth the resurrection. and receiving a performance here full of Romantic swagger and broad-brush drama.
The second disc follows the model of the first in presenting the complete incidental music to a Shakespeare play—here, The Tempest—with all the acting parts voiced by Simon Callow. The only exception are the roles of Ariel and Ceres which are spoken/sung by the ideally light-voiced and agile Mary Bevan. For one single section, track 18 (Act IV Scene 1), she sings a duet with Fflur Wyn as Juno. Unlike the Macbeth music composed on the hoof to fit the demands of a specific production, The Tempest is elsewhere listed as Sullivan's "Op.1". It was produced as an extended suite of 12 pieces to accompany the play as part of Sullivan's graduation work in Leipzig. At the examination concert in 1861, Sullivan presented six of the twelve sections. Unlike the Macbeth performance, this tends to be more an orchestral or vocal section, tied to the next with an interconnecting excerpt from the play. It is therefore easier to choose to focus on just the music by skipping the usually brief dialogue. Callow stays accent-free, which I prefer. The liner notes include no texts spoken or sung, but given the admirably clear enunciation no texts are ultimately necessary. Perhaps because Sullivan was writing music for his own mind's-eye idealised version of the score, he was able to write in a more unrestrained manner. For sure, the sheer orchestral, melodic and dramatic brilliance of the writing makes it easy to understand quite why he burst onto the British musical scene at the age of 21 with this score. Again, the playing and the recording here are very fine—alert and sensitive throughout. Listen to the beautifully flowing lyrical No.4Prelude to Act III for an early example of Sullivan's great melodic gift [this section is included in the 'standard' instrumental suite]. On disc The Tempest has been more popular than Macbeth. Aside from this new disc, there are extended suites from Vivian Dunn with the CBSO on EMI, Richard Hickox with the BBC PO on Chandos and Richard Stern in Kansas City on Reference Recordings. I know the first two performances, though not the third, and they are both very fine. But in this instance the presence of the extra music and especially the vocal sections make the Dutton disc preferable.
This set is valuable in presenting two major Sullivan scores in more complete versions than ever before. For the ardent Sullivan admirer they are compulsory purchases and will bring much pleasure, especially with the valuable bonus of the complete version of Marmion. Macbeth is labelled as a "World Premiere Recording" whilst the other two scores are "First Complete Recordings". With Macbeth the options are limited, overture aside. Naxos have yet to re-release the Marco Polo discs previously mentioned, so they are available at a price in the second-hand market but I would recommend Andrew Penny's selection of orchestral excerpts as worth considering. The Tempest is the more coherent score, driven by Sullivan's imagination rather than the specific demands of Irving's production. The Dutton engineering is good. The discs are in SACD format, I assume in the 2.0 version. I cannot spot anything to say it is a multi-channel production. I listened to the SACD layer, which is good but not remarkable. The liner notes are in English only, perfectly good despite the noted absence of texts or lyrics.
An enjoyable but not a vital addition to your collection.