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Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
Sir John in Love - an opera in four acts (1924-28) [126:26]
Heddle Nash (tenor) - Shallow; Parry Jones (baritone) - Sir Hugh Evans; Gerald Davies (tenor) - Slender; Andrew Gold (tenor) - Peter Simple; Denis Dowling (baritone) - Page; Roderick Jones (baritone) - Sir John Falstaff; John Kentish (tenor) - Bardolph; Denis Catlin (baritone) - Nym; Forbes Robinson (bass) - Pistol; April Cantelo (soprano) - Anne Page; Laelia Finneberg (soprano) - Mrs Page; Marion Lowe (mezzo) - Mrs Ford; James Johnston (tenor) - Fenton; Francis Loring (baritone) - Dr. Caius; Ronald Lewis (bass) - Rugby; Pamela Bowden (alto) - Mrs Quickly; Owen Brannigan (baritone) - The Host of the ‘Garter Inn’; John Cameron (bass) - Ford
Sadler’s Wells Chorus, Philharmonia Orchestra/Stanford Robinson
BBC studio recording, broadcast 12-13 February 1956. Mono. ADD
English libretto included

Here is another release of great importance from the treasure trove of off-air recordings made by the late Richard Itter using his state-of-the-art recording equipment at home.

As Paul Conway observes in his admirable essay accompanying these discs, Vaughan Williams’ operas have not fared terribly well, yet “he was incontestably a man of the theatre.” When I finally got to see a staging of Pilgrim’s Progress a few years ago (review) I found that, in the hands of a generally sensitive producer, music that I had loved for some forty years came vividly to life on the stage. So Mr Conway’s judgement is spot-on. However, that remains the only staging of a VW opera that I have ever seen, so thank goodness I’ve been able to get to know all of them through recordings.

There are two fairly modern recordings of Sir John in Love in the catalogue. The most recent is from Chandos and is conducted by Richard Hickox (review ~ review). In 1974 Meredith Davies conducted it for EMI. Reviewing the EMI set back in 2003, Rob Barnett commented “Of this recording and performance golden opinions remain …” and that’s a judgement with which I concur (see also second review). For one thing, Davies had a very strong cast which reads almost like a Who’s Who of British singers of that era. Among those to be found in Windsor on that occasion were John Noble (Page), Richard Van Allen (Pistol), Felicity Palmer (Mrs Page), Wendy Eathorne (Anne Page), Robert Tear (Fenton), Helen Watts (Mrs Quickly) and Robert Lloyd (Ford). Dominating the proceedings as the Fat Knight was Raimund Herincx. I doubt if any of the EMI cast had essayed their roles on stage because Paul Conway tells us that there were no professional stagings between 1958 and 2006 (review). Nonetheless, the Davies recording was a fine achievement and filled a major gap in the Vaughan Williams discography.

The cast assembled by the BBC in 1956 was also a strong one – note the presence of such luminaries as April Cantelo, Owen Brannigan, John Cameron, Forbes Robinson, Parry Jones and Heddle Nash. The singer portraying Falstaff had taken the part on stage: Roderick Jones was Falstaff in the first professional staging, mounted by Sadler’s Wells Opera in 1946. James Johnston and Owen Brannigan also appeared in that 1946 production, taking the roles that they reprised for the BBC in this present recording.

VW compiled the libretto for Sir John in Love himself. His main source was Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor, the text of which he abridged, but he also added words from a number of English poets and playwrights besides some passages from other plays by The Bard. The music is delightful - and often sparkling - from start to finish and Paul Conway is right to point out the score’s “joyous songfulness”. As he also reminds us, in the period that he was composing the opera VW wrote a number of works in which he moved from the easy lyricism of Hugh the Drover to a more austere, even acerbic style in works such as Sancta Civitas and the Concerto Accademico (both 1925) – or to the mystical expression of Flos Campi (also 1925). It would not be long after the completion of Sir John in Love that the powerful utterance that is Job appeared, in 1930. That’s a very well made point. Much of Sir John in Love is, on the surface, a delightful entertainment but there are passages that point to the future; I’m thinking particularly of the eerie orchestration when, in Act IV, Scene 1 Mrs Page relates the legend of Herne the Hunter (CD2, track 9).

Vaughan Williams included a large cast of characters when adapting Shakespeare’s play and the result is that many scenes feature busy ensemble writing. I’m unsure how well this would work on stage but in a recording and with the libretto to hand one can follow the action with ease. Most of the time VW’s touch is sure though I think the opera has a few passages that are dramatically weak. Chief among these is the opening of Act III, Scene 2 where it’s hard to see that Sir Hugh Evans’ reading from the Bible serves much useful purpose. Earlier in the opera, during Act I, the first appearance of Dr Caius (“Vere is dat knave Rugby?”) with the character singing in cod French is a passage that I wish VW had excised. Overall though the dramatic pacing is sure-footed and the principal characters make their respective marks.

In this it helps very much that the singers are demonstrably ‘inside’ their characters and that Stanford Robinson conducts the score extremely well. I very much enjoyed Roderick Jones’ portrayal of Falstaff. He seems to me to convey the various aspects of the central character’s make-up, including his faded chivalry, his pomposity, his mistaken belief that he is still a ladies’ man, and his genial roguery. At all times I found Jones to be believable and he also sings very well. So too does John Cameron as Ford – his splendid, courtly tone as he portrays Ford’s contrition towards his wife (Act IV Scene 1) is a splendid example of his excellence. Owen Brannigan is ideal as the genial Mine Host; you can just imagine him dispensing ale and sack.

April Cantelo is a charming Anne Page. She would have been just short of her 28th birthday when this recording was made and her lovely tone is well suited to this music and to the portrayal of a young girl. James Johnston sings Fenton and his singing has appropriately ringing ardour. However, as I listened I wondered if his voice really suggested a young man and, on looking up his biography, I found that he was 52 at the time of this performance. The scenes between the two of them – especially in Act I and in Act III Scene 1 - go very well but Wendy Eathorne and Robert Tear are perhaps better matched on the Meredith Davies recording.

Among the rest of the large cast Pamela Bowden (Mrs Quickly) gives a very strong performance and Denis Dowling is excellent in the role of Page. In truth the whole company does well. The Philharmonia plays with sparkle and precision for Stanford Robinson – and with pleasing warmth in the many lyrical passages. The chorus doesn’t make an appearance until Act III but thereafter they make a good contribution.

The performance was well recorded by the BBC though, inevitably, one is conscious that the sound is six decades old – in fact on the day that I am writing this review it will be sixty years tomorrow since the first instalment of the broadcast. The singers are in the foreground with the orchestra behind them. Occasionally when the orchestra is playing loudly – in the Prelude to Act II Scene 1, for instance – one is aware of the limitations of the recording but overall I think we get a pretty good aural picture of the performance. There’s one small oddity: at the change between Scenes 1 and 2 of Act II we hear the second scene introduced by a perfectly modulated BBC announcer. This is the only time that an announcement intrudes and at first I wondered why this had been left in. I soon realised, however, that there is a very soft sustained note on the double basses between the scenes – I suspect it was prolonged during this performance to coincide with the short announcement – and it would have been impossible to edit out the announcer.

As is their wont, Lyrita have gone to town on this release. There are two booklets. The first contains an excellent introductory essay by Paul Conway and a synopsis of the action. The second has the full libretto. Richard Itter’s recording of the BBC broadcast has been transferred from acetates and restored by Norman White. He’s done an excellent job.

I think that anyone who wants to discover Sir John in Love will turn first to the Meredith Davies recording. That’s only natural because the EMI studio sound gives a much fuller, more detailed representation of VW’s score. Davies also benefits from a very fine cast headed by the ebullient and nuanced Falstaff of Raimund Herincx. Roderick Jones is a terrific Falstaff but for me Herincx just edges it. Compare the two, for example, in Falstaff’s exhausted, indignant monologue at the start of Act IV Scene 2 (“The Windsor bell hath struck twelve”). Jones is very characterful here, as he is throughout, but Herincx finds even more both in the words and the music.

However, even if the Davies recording remains the obvious library choice there’s a huge amount to be gained – and great pleasure to be derived – from listening to this 1956 performance. It’s a cause for celebration that the first ever recording of this delightful score should have been made available and once again collectors are hugely indebted to Richard Itter and to the Lyrita Recorded Edition Trust. This important release is a mandatory purchase for lovers of Vaughan Williams’ music.

John Quinn

see also review by Paul Corfield Godfrey

Editor's Note: Readers may recall that there was one other BBC Radio 3 production of Sir John in Love. There the conductor was Brian Priestman and Sir John was sung by Owen Brannigan. The BBC Chorus was joined by the BBC Concert Orchestra. This was first broadcast on 28 June 1970 but was repeated during RVW centenary year on 15 October 1972. The cast comprised Shallow, a country Justice - Leslie Fyson, Sir Hugh Evans - Alan Opie, Slender - Roger Norrington (yes), Bardolph - Robert Thomas, Pistol - Eric Stannard, Peter Simple - Leslie Fry, Fenton - David Hillman, Doctor Caius - Raymond Hayter, Rugby - Harold Lum, Mistress Quickly - Helen Watts, Ford - Gordon Farrell, Mistress Ford - Margaret Lensky and Mistress Page - April Cantelo. The producer was Brian Trowell. RB



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