Christmas Gambols and The Musical Tour of Mr Dibdin
Simon Butteriss (baritone)
Stephen Higgins (fortepiano)
rec. 2017, Proper Music, The New Power House, London RETROSPECT OPERA RO003 [74:40]
This is a splendid CD of little-known music extremely well performed. But, for once, let me start with the notes. Variously by the singer (Simon Butteriss), the editor of Christmas Gambols (David Chandler) and early-music specialist Jeremy Barlow, they are lively and clearly-written and a monument to scholarship. They set the work in its historical context, providing essential information about Charles Dibdin, his career, and his songs and the motivation behind them, plus an expert analysis of his compositional practice. If I had started by listening to the music, I would certainly have got the idea, but the notes greatly shortened the process and enhanced my enjoyment of the music. They are among the best of any that I have seen.
Beyond his nautical songs, notably “Tom Bowling”, the work of Charles Dibdin is hardly known today, yet in his theatrical heyday, he was one of the best-known figures in London theatrical life, working as actor, composer and writer. His association with David Garrick, the most famous actor and theatre manager of the time, lasted seven years and was followed by work with other companies until financial problems and fallings-out with his business partners prompted a career change. Dibdin then became a true soloist, writing, composing and acting out his own material, thus becoming an early exponent of the one-man show.
This entertaining and splendidly performed CD concerns itself with this part of Dibdin’s career. His Christmas Gambols, a ‘Table Entertainment’ (as he called his one-man shows) was presented at the Sans Souci theatre in the Strand in 1796, the last show presented there before he moved to his newly-built theatre of the same name in Leicester Fields. Christmas Gambols as described in this set of songs have little in common with our modern-day Yuletide activities, except insofar as they conjure up a warm atmosphere of games and story-telling.
The setting is the home of an archetypal aristocrat Sir Alfred English, populated at Christmas by ‘friends, tenants and dependants’. The eight songs with spoken introductions that form the entertainment are intended, in Dibdin’s words “to convey a useful moral, through the medium of harmless hilarity”. They include a panegyric to the British oak and its association with liberty and a couple of other moralising (I do not use the word pejoratively) songs but perhaps the most fun is to be had from stories in song told by Sir Alfred’s factotum Stingo, the beer-related name Dibdin chose to illustrate the conviviality of Christmas. The ‘gambols’ of the title refer to parlour games of the time (‘hunt the slipper’ and ‘blind man’s bluff’ were the names I recognized).
The liveliness and wit of the writing is evident enough on paper but Simon Butteriss’s rendition of the songs adds another dimension. I cannot imagine a better performance, perhaps not surprisingly coming from a foremost interpreter of comic roles in Gilbert and Sullivan (Dibdin is an important antecedent of G & S). He also has a wide repertoire in operatic music ranging from Offenbach to Ligeti. His sparkling delivery and articulation add another layer of humour altogether. Stephen Higgins at a splendid copy of a fortepiano of 1785 proves to be an ideal partner, bringing a similarly extensive background – from Monteverdi to Sondheim – to his ‘realisations’ of Dibdin’s music. This rather dry term understates the value of his contribution.
Simon Butteriss extracted songs and words from Dibdin’s first solo entertainment Readings and Music to form The Musical Tour of Mr Dibdin, and he and Stephen Higgins give an equally enjoyable account of these mostly comic numbers, prominently featuring a recommendation of ‘grog’ as the solution to many ills. Butteriss does the many voices required with exemplary clarity.
Back to the notes; with their wealth of historical detail, wide-ranging stories of the cultural life of the period - not to mention the very necessary glossary – they are themselves a splendid production and one which complements ideally the impressive performances. All in all, this is a very agreeable CD which deserves many listens for pure enjoyment, over and above its value in filling a gap in our knowledge of a distinctive corner of British musical history.
Contents The Musical Tour of Mr Dibdin [29:54]
Introduction: Nothing Like Grog [2:15]
The Cape of Good Hope [3:00]
Nothing Like Grog (reprise) [2:37]
Ned that Died at Sea [4:30]
The Siege of Troy [4:16]
The Return of Ulysses [4:28]
Zounds, Sir! [2:18]
Jack at the Opera [5:25]
Nothing Like Grog (reprise) [1:05]
Christmas Gambols [44:36]
England’s Tree of Liberty [6:23]
Love at Fifty [4:31]
The Rustic Orpheus [9:45]
The Pedlar [6:40]
The Margate Hoy [7:29]
Jacky and the Cow [4:37]
A Song of Songs [3:50]