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Geoffrey BUSH (1920-1998) Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime (1972) [53.20]
David Johnson (tenor) – Lord Arthur Savile: Lynne Dawson (soprano) – Miss Sibyl Merton: Alan Watt (baritone) – Mr Septimus Podgers: Donald Maxwell (baritone) – The Anarchist: Anne Pashley (soprano) – Lady Windermere: Eirian James (mezzo-soprano) – Lady Flora: Anne Collins (contralto) – Duchess of Paisley: John Winfield (tenor) – Lane: Philip Riley (baritone) – Merriman: Geoffrey Moses (bass) – Sir Thomas, Police Sergeant Musicians of London/Simon Joly
rec. location not stated, broadcast 27 July 1986 Concerto for trumpet, piano and orchestra (1962) [20.45]
Patrick Addinsell (trumpet), Hamish Milne (piano) BBC Philharmonic Orchestra/Bryden Thomson
rec. location not stated, broadcast 8 May 1986 LYRITA ITTER BROADCAST COLLECTION REAM1131 [74.08]
The works of Oscar Wilde have long proved a fruitful hunting ground for composers in search of opera libretti which have the right sort of emotional clout. There is Richard Strauss’s Salome, of course, surely more frequently performed nowadays than the original French stage play; and the same can probably be said of Zemlinky’s setting of Wilde’s incomplete Florentine Tragedy. The ‘fairy tales’ too have proved to be highly adaptable for stage presentation; in the case of Malcolm Williamson’s The Happy Prince, one of his most attractive scores, we still await the reissue of the marvellous 1960s Argo recording. But some other Wilde texts, in particularly his sparkling comedies, have proved more resistant to musical setting; they are simply too reliant on the writer’s trademark witty exchanges of dialogue to allow for much in the way of any additional enhancement from a composer. That observation has unfortunately to apply to Gerald Barry’s recent setting of The importance of being Earnest, as well as to Hans Kox’s operatic adaptation of Dorian Gray which I reviewed for this site back in 2013 with a distinct lack of enthusiasm.
Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime might well seem to fall into a similar category; the original short story, with its frequent changes of scene and its piquant observations of the protagonist’s frustrated attempts to commit a murder and fulfil the prophecy which has been read in his hand, lacks any real emotional core which might enable musical warmth to penetrate or enhance. Lord Arthur himself is a deluded and credulous fool, and his long-suffering fiancée an air-headed and equally credulous ninny; the chiromancer Podger is intelligent enough to hoodwink his audiences (and himself) but cannot see his way clear to avoid danger even when it threatens his own life; the cheerful anarchist is a poor specimen who cannot even construct a workable bomb, and who seems blissfully unaware that the activities of people like himself will shortly plunge Europe into a World War and the clients at Lady Windermere’s soirée are as witless a collection of dummies and stuffed shirts as one could wish to avoid. And Wilde would not have us see them any other way; none of them are given any redeeming features, unless Lord Arthur’s sentimental moping is to be seen as such.
And yet Geoffrey Bush, constructing his own libretto, does manage to engage our sympathies for these people. Arthur and Sibyl may be silly and sentimental, but their naïve love has a touching innocence. The Duchess of Paisley, taking on some of the characteristics (and lines) of Lady Bracknell, is a shrewd and calculating gorgon whose brusque exterior and appetite for salacious gossip nonetheless seems to mask serious inner insecurities. Podger has a sense of conscience, trying to hold back the bad news that he suspects. And even the anarchist has a bluff sense of humour about his career of assassination, with his cheerful talk of booby-trapped umbrellas (if the opera had been written a few years later, they might have been poisonous). Bush cleverly rings the changes between recitative and arioso to allow Wilde’s epigrams to make their full effect, and his abridgement of the action condensing the whole into a mere three locations is effective almost in spite of itself.
The opera was written for student forces at the Guildhall School of Music, and when it was first performed there the critics were generally favourable with the love duet in the final scene being particularly admired. Some thirteen years later the BBC mounted this studio production with a fully professional cast, and that was the first occasion on which I encountered the score, making my own recording from the broadcast. This Lyrita issue derives from a recording made at exactly the same time by their former proprietor Richard Itter, who obviously had the advantage of much superior recording equipment as well as a better broadcast signal. It comes in this reissue complete with the sung text and an informative booklet note by Paul Conway, and is much to be welcomed although the original broadcast seems to have entirely escaped critical notice at the time.
The BBC supplied the lack of scenery with a spoken narration to explain the stage action for the benefit of listeners, and since this is integrated into the performance it is impossible to eliminate this when the information can be supplied from the booklet. But unlike some broadcasts of this period when the narration is highly intrusive, it is cleverly placed here into the mouth of Lord Arthur himself who treats it as a sort of autobiography (he had obviously not watched the ending of Kind Hearts and Coronets). The text as supplied in the booklet shows a considerable number of differences from what is actually sung, but it is unclear whether this indicates a deliberate or accidental departure from Bush’s vocal score, or is simply the result of misprints – although one might have expected that proof reading would have expunged the reference to a “bobby-trapped umbrella” especially when the phrase is correctly spelt in the track listing on the back cover.
David Johnson in the title role also has the lion’s share of the singing, with a solo in each of the three scenes. His diction is clear, he points his words cleanly, and he shows a willingness to expand when he is occasionally offered a lyrical phrase. Alan Watt is equally characterful in the role of the palmist Podgers, and Lynne Dawson blends well with Johnson in their duet by the river in the final scene although – despite the praise of the early critics – the music seems oddly bloodless and effete rather than genuinely ‘engaged’ (presumably this was as the composer intended). The only other role of any real substance is that of the anarchist, and the young Donald Maxwell demonstrates his ability to put across comic timing excellently in his Shostakovich-like little scherzo. Anne Collins adds another cameo to her gallery of Gilbertian ‘ladies of a certain age’ (certainly more convincing than Barry’s pantomime dame of a Lady Bracknell). Since the opera was written for a student production, there are a plethora of minor roles, which are well taken here with many singers of real substance. The size of the pit at the Guildhall militated against Bush’s original intention to use a full orchestra, but his expanded chamber forces here (twenty-seven players) do all that is required and Simon Joly injects plenty of comic timing into the accompaniment with its sly references to various well-known tunes. Indeed much of the music is genuinely funny in its own right, including the chorale prelude on Nun danket which provides the transition into the final scene and echoes the last phrase of the preceding duet “May the Lord make him truly thankful”. Real black humour, this.
The disc is completed by a performance of Bush’s first concerto given in London some ten years earlier than the opera, but derived from his even earlier sonata for trumpet and piano written as far back as 1945 and therefore one of Bush’s very first works. Its sonata origins are immediately apparent in the prominent part given to the piano, and indeed the work would be best described as a ‘double concerto’ for trumpet, piano and orchestra. Indeed, there are places where one rather wishes that the composer had transferred more of the piano material to the orchestra to make a straightforward piano concerto, but after a rather forbidding neo-classical start the concerto has plenty of bounce and spirit especially in the finale. It would be hard to imagine it being better played than in this live broadcast, and the recorded sound is again excellent.
A most worthwhile and enjoyable act of rescue, then, from the treasure trove of the Itter collection. At the end of most of my earlier reviews of these Lyrita issues I have usually appended a list of desirable additions to the catalogue (if they were ever recorded by Itter), and I note that other reviewers and correspondents to the site have taken the opportunity to add their two-pennyworth to what must be an increasingly lengthy ‘wants list’. But surely we should be most grateful for what is available, and simply wait with anticipation for further goodies to come. But then again, even without moving any distance at all in alphabetical terms, there are Alan Bush’s operas…