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Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958) Sir John in Love (1924, revised 1928) [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
rec. BBC studio recording, broadcast 12-13 February 1956 LYRITA ITTER BROADCAST COLLECTION REAM.2122 MONO [64:32
Considering how few recordings there are in the catalogues of Vaughan Williams operas, there are a remarkably large number of issues which arise in the scores regarding precisely what is and what is not to be performed on any occasion. Richard Hickox restored some repeats in his recording (Chandos CHAN9625(2)) of The Pilgrim’s Progress which Sir Adrian Boult omitted. In his live performance of the opera in the Royal Festival Hall made at the same time as his recording and with largely the same cast, Boult made further massive cuts totalling over half an hour of music. In the case of Hugh the Drover and Sir John in Love the differences between recordings are even more considerable. The first recording of the former opera, for example, demonstrates the remarkably wide-ranging revisions made by the composer subsequent to the substantial excerpts recorded by Sir Malcolm Sargent on 78s in 1924 (LP Pearl GEM128). Neither of the more recent recordings conducted by Sir Charles Groves and Matthew Best (Hyperion CDD22049) provide the scene which VW subsequently wrote to begin Act Two. In the case of Sir John in Love VW composed additional scenes for a 1930 revival, including a Prologue which finds its way into none of the four sets which have been available from time to time.
The recording under consideration here, derived from acetates in the collection of the late Richard Itter, is the earliest of the four. It was taken from a BBC broadcast spread over two nights and conducted by Stanford Robinson, who is better known nowadays as an interpreter of light music but who was far from negligible in other fields – he also at around the same time conducted a superb BBC radio performance of Alan Bush’s Men of Blackmoor. Two years after this broadcast, a professional staging of Sir John at Sadler’s Wells by the New Opera Company was conducted by Brian Priestman, who in the 1970s directed a further BBC broadcast performance, this time in stereo, which has been available as a ‘pirate’ issue from time to time. Priestman’s version, despite the superb casting of Owen Brannigan in the title role, is annoying because of the persistent interference of a radio announcer explaining the plot over the music; but it does have some points in common with this earlier broadcast performance, and not only on the occasion where an announcer again is heard explaining a change of scene to radio listeners over a held note in the orchestra; other such instances have presumably been edited out. There are also some actual alterations to the score, which were I imagine made with the composer’s agreement. One of these comes during the entry of Mistress Quickly in Act Two Scene One, when she is heard approaching and singing the folk tune Lovely Joan. Here there are additional comments provided by Mistresses Ford and Page, which also featured in the Priestman recording; where there were other additions also. Although these help to clarify the stage action, they are a serious error because they obscure the beautiful folk melody; and because this recording, like all its rivals, makes two swingeing cuts totalling 72 bars in the following interlude, this is the only opportunity in the opera that we get to hear a tune which VW clearly rated so highly that he incorporated it into the middle section of his Fantasia on Greensleeves drawn from the score.
The cut in the interlude really should not be made, because it also combines Lovely Joan in counterpoint with the motif which has featured prominently throughout the previous scene and which is left unmotivated in the Fantasia where the scoring is also less colourful. Even Richard Hickox did not include this passage in his recording (Chandos CHAN9928), the most recent of the four in the catalogue, although he did restore some cuts made in other versions. VW inexplicably recommends in the score that the abridgement should be made “unless required by the stage”. He was wrong and, even without cuts, the time allowed for a complete change of scene is under four minutes, which if further abbreviated would surely be impracticable in any traditional staging. It should also be noted that this recording does make one further cut, the dance Half Hannikin in the final scene, which was also authorised by the composer, but which is included in both the Davies and Hickox recordings - although Priestman also omitted it. The text in the booklet implies that it is included; but it is not.
What does make this recording particularly valuable, despite its mono sound, is the fact that it features many of the singers whom the composer particularly prized in their roles. Also Stanford Robinson’s conducting, less rumbustious than any of his rivals, makes many subtle points that are missed elsewhere – listen to his sly inflection of the trio Sigh no more, ladies, for example. The broadcast sound, forward and clear, sounds dated; but it is remarkable how quickly the ear adjusts, and the playing of the orchestra – the Philharmonia at the peak of its form – trounces all rivals, even Hickox on Chandos with the London Symphony Orchestra. By comparison with Robinson and Hickox, the direction of Priestman and Meredith Davies (on the EMI recording) is relatively uninflected — efficient rather than affectionate. The recordings by Davies and Hickox, being studio performances intended for commercial issue, have no truck with any additional explanatory lines of dialogue spoken or sung.
Those who want to hear the score in all its glory will already have either the Davies or Hickox recordings in their collections. What will interest them will be the interpretations of the roles in the opera. Davies probably has the best all-round cast, a roster of major British singers from the 1970s; but Stanford Robinson here has some important voices, albeit not in the most important roles. Owen Brannigan is rather wasted in the relatively small role of the Host, Forbes Robinson is definitely suited to more prominence than Pistol, and it is odd indeed to find James Johnston — a celebrated exponent of the heroic title role in Hugh the Drover — consigned to the small-scale lyricism of Fenton, where he is partnered with April Cantelo, who has a stronger voice than any of the merry wives themselves. Another point to note is the appearance of Heddle Nash in the role of Shallow, although his voice at this late stage in his career sounds decidedly worn.
Brannigan is the only singer in all these recordings to obey the composer’s instruction that his love song “Oh that joy so soon should waste” with “exaggerated sentiment” – unless Roderick Jones’s assumption of a Pontius-Pilate delivery (courtesy of Michael Palin in Life of Brian, 1979) of his Rs is meant to convey affectation. Indeed some of the singers here are very strait-laced in their delivery: Pamela Bowden lacks much sense of merriment as Mistress Quickly, and Francis Loring as Doctor Caius only intermittently sounds French. On the other hand Denis Catlin’s Nym goes to the other extreme, his rustic accents spilling over into a very approximate rendering of his sung notes. The jealous husbands are well cast, with Denis Dowling and John Cameron well inside their roles. It is good to hear Cameron’s declamation of the word “cuckold” made to sound like “cuckoo” with the first vowel lengthened, as is clearly demanded by the text but which is overlooked in all the other recordings. The diction throughout is generally very good, although in more confused passages the listener will need to have reference to the supplied text. There are a number of differences between the words in the booklet - mainly, though not invariably, those in the vocal score - and those we hear. Some are the result of mistakes by the singers — as in Page’s dismissal of Fenton — and others are clearly deliberately inserted to explain stage action as in Caius’s reference to his letter.
There are indeed two booklets supplied with this set, one containing the text (English only) and the other with a wide-ranging seven-page introduction to the score by Paul Conway. The transfer from the acetates betrays some slight unsteadiness at the very beginning, but otherwise the recorded quality is very good for its period and a conscientious attempt is made by the engineers to convey the sound of voices approaching from offstage and receding into the distance which is such a feature of the score. There are some moments when singers appear to be more accidentally ‘off mike’ but otherwise everything is as clear as one would wish. Those wanting to make a first acquaintance with a still underestimated score would be better advised to begin with either of the sets in more modern sound by Meredith Davies or Richard Hickox. Those who have already fallen in love with the opera will find many points here of interest and subtle differences of interpretation that will produce their own rewards. Paul Corfield Godfrey