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Gustav HOLST (1874-1934)
At the Boar's Head, Op.42 - Opera in one 1 Act (1925) [55:11]
Jonathan Lemalu (bass-baritone) - Falstaff
Eric Barry (tenor) - Prince Hal
Paweł Kołodziej (bass) - Poins
Krzysztof Szumański (baritone) - Bardolf
Kathleen Reveille (mezzo) - Doll Tearsheet
Gary Griffiths (baritone) - Pistol
Nicole Percifield (soprano) - Hostess
Mateusz Stachura (baritone) - Gadshill
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
Riders to the Sea, Opera in one Act (1925-32) [38:29]
Gary Griffiths (baritone) - Bartley
Nicole Percifield (soprano) - Cathleen
Kathleen Reveille (mezzo) - Maurya
Evanna Chiew (mezzo) - Nora
Anna Fijałkowska (mezzo) - The woman
Warsaw Chamber Opera Sinfonietta/Łukasz Borowicz
rec. Warsaw Philharmonic Concert Hall, Warsaw, Poland, 18 March 2016
DUX 1307-08 [55:11 + 38:29]

On the face of it this set which provides two seldom performed, let alone recorded, English operas is a real bargain, especially since one, the Holst, presents here the complete edition of the opera for the first time. They were given concert performances on the same day as part of the 20th Ludwig Van Beethoven Easter Festival, which in itself is praiseworthy. However, I do have reservations, mainly about the Vaughan Williams, which make me treasure the earlier recordings even more.

The earliest of these two works is Ralph Vaughan Williams' Riders To The Sea which was premiered on 1 December 1937, some years after he completed the score. It is among the composer's shortest operas and is his most dramatic, as well as being my favourite of his sung stage works. He packs so much angst into his setting of the great Irish poet and playwright J. M. Synge’s doom-ridden play. It's a tale of a family's longing and grief for news of their fisherman son and brother who has been lost at sea. It is a tragic tale, one in which Vaughan Williams manages to ramp up the fear of the family. He seems also to empathise with his characters right from the opening notes. Here for me is where the problems start with this performance. Łukasz Borowicz does not seem to find the tension in the opening few bars, which serves as a sort of a prelude. Here Meredith Davies on EMI Classics (CDM 7647302), whose version was recorded in 1970 and is the quickest of the three I now have, reigns supreme. In Davies' performance you know from the very first note what to expect and he delivers with aplomb. In contrast Borowicz’s version just lacks that ability to grip me as Davies’ does. Richard Hickox on Chandos (CHAN 9392 now at mid-price on CHAN 10870 X), the slowest version, manages to keep the tension despite the slower pace.

Łukasz Borowicz is also let down by the choice of singer. The role of Maurya was envisaged by Vaughan Williams as a contralto but here, as in the Hickox, the part is taken by a mezzo-soprano. Kathleen Reveille for me sounds to me to be too young to be Maurya, the mother figure. Her interpretation is not helped by the over-use of vibrato in her voice. I do like the performance of Gary Griffiths in the role of Bartley, who makes an attempt at singing his role with an accent, something that is lacking elsewhere in this production of Vaughan Williams’ ‘Irish’ opera. Davies on the other hand gets his cast spot-on, the late great contralto Helen Watts, is in my opinion, the finest Maurya on record, her voice has the age and experience that the role requires, although Linda Finnie for Hickox is also good. Benjamin Luxon for Davies is a stand-out Bartley. Both these recordings also employ accented performances.

The orchestral playing and the wordless choral singing are well done, but not enough to save things. If you are looking for a recording of the Vaughan Williams look elsewhere. My suggestion is to try to track down a copy of the Davies.

Gustav Holst’s At The Boar's Head is served better than the Vaughan Williams in this set. This is not just because it represents the first recording of the complete version. Listening to this recording and contrasting it with that by David Atherton which is now only available in the Warner Classics' Holst The Collector’s Edition box (review), I could hardly tell the difference between the two, except for the extended Devouring Time section. The text, which Holst himself drew together from Shakespeare’s Henry IV Parts 1 and 2 as well as a couple of sonnets, is set to a collection of some 35 traditional and folk tunes along with three sections of original music. Holst’s own daughter, Imogen, was not a great fan of the work, complaining that it was difficult to enjoy the text when set to the well known folk music. This opinion is one of the reasons given for the work's lack of success. Another is that Holst rigidly stuck to Shakespeare’s original neither adding nor embellishing it to achieve a more apt match for the music.

This new performance stands well against the Atherton. Jonathan Lemalu as Falstaff gives a wonderful interpretation. There is little to choose between him and Atherton’s Falstaff, John Tomlinson. I do however prefer Atherton’s Prince Hal. Philip Langridge brings a depth to the role that Eric Barry does not achieve, although Barry is in fine voice. Indeed the whole cast is in good voice with some impressive ensemble interplay especially between Jonathan Lemalu, Eric Barry and Kathleen Reveille. Again the orchestral playing is excellent, making this a most welcome new recording.

The two discs are presented in a fold-out digipack inside a slipcase along with a booklet containing full texts and informative notes to both operas. The recorded sound is good for both operas. It is difficult to hear any audience noise at all until the faded applause at the end of the Holst alone. The Vaughan Williams piece dies away with the sound of the wind machine.

Stuart Sillitoe

 

 




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