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Gustav HOLST (1874-1934)
At the Boar's Head, Op.42 - Opera in one 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]

This is a very attractively packaged set bringing together two short operas by those great friends and colleagues Ralph Vaughan Williams and Gustav Holst. Both works have been recorded before - and well - but this coupling is unique and interesting. Additionally, there is always value in hearing music by these composers performed by non-British artists. That being said, although these are live performances taken from the 2016 Beethoven Easter Festival in Warsaw, the bulk of the singers are native English or American/English speakers. The Holst runs to just around fifty-five minutes and the Vaughan Williams a remarkably concentrated and compelling thirty-eight. Holst wrote his Shakespeare-based work while recuperating from illness but what started out as a diversion resulted in this extended piece - even the composer’s most ardent admirers would struggle to say it is one of his greatest works. Conversely the Vaughan Williams, written before Holst died but not performed until some years after his death, is surely one of his great works and possibly his finest dramatic offering. The two composers were great dissectors and critics of each-other’s work - I do not know if Holst knew the Vaughan Williams opera but I suspect he would have approved of its remarkable concision and grim power.

Disc one is given over to Holst's homage to Shakespeare; At the Boar's Head. This is a setting of excerpts from Henry IV together with 2 Sonnets and a couple of traditional songs. Holst happened upon the fact that traditional melodies he found in the 17th Century Playfords Dancing Master as well as folksongs collected by Cecil Sharpe could be used to set the Shakespeare text pretty much without alteration. Hence his observation quoted in the liner that the work “wrote itself.” Holst's great skill in this work is to make the musical ‘joins’ so seamless. Quite where Playford ends, original Holst begins,or Sharpe interpolates, is all but impossible for a listener to know by ear alone. The concern is that this does make for a very ‘wordy’ piece and one where the pleasure is in the skill of the execution on the page rather than any great emotional journey.

The central roles are Falstaff - resonantly sung by the excellent Jonathan Lemalu - and his verbal jousting with the future King Henry V - Prince Hal sung by tenor Eric Barry. Lemalu has a wonderfully rich voice - although it has to be said much too young-sounding for the three-score years Falstaff. Barry's tenor timbre is quite edgy and bright - not the most beautiful sound you will ever hear but appropriate for a character who is seeking to deflate the ever-egotistical Falstaff. As far as I am aware this is only the work’s second recording. The liner states it is the “world premiere of the complete score” but then nowhere elaborates what this contains that was missing from the earlier version. That was a very spry recording on EMI/Warner from David Atherton conducting the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra in 1983. Atherton is not a conductor associated with British music of this period but he is actually very good at keeping the textures light, the atmosphere bright and generally letting the music roll. The slightly dry acoustic of the Philharmonic Hall helps emphasise these qualities to the music's benefit. An example is some wonderfully rumbustious tuba playing on the new disc which because of the resonant acoustic rather overwhelms the music it accompanies splendid though it is in its own right. Atherton is further helped by an excellent group of great British singers led by John Tomlinson and Philip Langridge as the two main protagonists. But when you see singers of the calibre of David Wilson-Thomson, Richard Suart and Michael George in the minor roles you know this is a quality production.

Contemporary criticism at the time was that the setting to music did little to enhance the text. This is a legitimate observation - quite often it is hard not to feel that Holst was allowing his technical skill to run away with the dramatic imperative – “too many notes” might for once be a valid critique. I like the way the older recording more sharply characterises the roles - the new Dux disc sounds rather too ‘placed’ on occasion. The very opening drinking song is a perfect example. On the Dux disc this is well sung - no more no less. On EMI/Warner it is a raucous drinking song which immediately sets the scene as a tavern and the mood as well-oiled. Overall this new performance is to be welcomed for the main roles and for its completeness - whatever that actually means! If my collection had room for just a single version, I would stick with the earlier version - especially in the incarnation which coupled it with another short Holst opera; The Wandering Scholar. What would be really appreciated now would be a complete version of The Perfect Fool or the early Sita.

Disc two is devoted to Vaughan Williams’ Riders to the Sea. Much as Holst ‘lifted’ his libretto from Shakespeare this Vaughan Williams is nearly a word for word setting of John Millington Synge’s one act play of the same name. Although set on the Atlantic coast of Ireland the work deals with universal themes of loss, grieving and acceptance. In brief the ‘action’ focuses on a homestead near the sea where an old mother waits with her two daughters for news of her son Michael who they fear has been drowned at sea. She has already lost her husband and four other sons and now her only surviving son Bartley insists on going on a perilous journey despite the impending storm. Maurya, the mother, follows him to give him her blessing but is struck dumb by a vision of Michael riding behind Bartley on a grey pony. She takes this to mean that both sons are now dead and she is left bereft. In one of Vaughan Williams’ greatest strokes of musico-dramatic genius, the music slips into a serene major key and Maurya sings “they are all gone now....”. If you take any pleasure in the music of Vaughan Williams this passage - in context - must be heard because it is one of the most poignant and powerful pieces of music he wrote.

On disc, the 1971 recording by Meredith Davies and a stellar cast (Norma Burrowes, Margaret Price, Helen Watts, Benjamin Luxon as the 2 daughters, mother and son), on Warner/EMI had the catalogue to itself for about twenty four years. In the mid-nineties Richard Hickox led another fine (more expansive by about five minutes) version on Chandos with  Linda Finnie, Ingrid Attrot, Lynne Dawson, Karl Morgan Daymond - another quartet of fine singers. To be blunt, this new recording on Dux, which would be perfectly enjoyable in isolation, cannot compete with either of the older versions. There are several reasons for this. This is an elemental work. Woven into its musical fabric are the wind and the sea. Vaughan Williams makes rather literal use of a wind machine but much of this musical characterisation is given to the orchestra which heaves and surges with unthinking violence. It is vital that the conductor should allow the orchestra to ebb and flow with fluent tempi and sudden extremes of tempo and dynamic. The Warsaw Chamber Opera Sinfonietta play very skilfully for conductor Łukasz Borowicz but he smoothes off the elemental edges. Vocally, although the Warsaw group of soloists are perfectly good, both the teams for EMI and Chandos are significantly better. Returning to the earlier set not having listened to it for some years I was impressed all over again by how fine it is in every respect - the ‘sound effects’ of the sea are rather clumsily faded in and out, mind.

Absolutely central is the matriarchal role of Maurya - the work could almost be called ‘The Old Woman and the Sea’. Helen Watts for Meredith Davies embodies internalised grief and sorrow - her closing arioso from the passage quoted earlier is simply superb. On Dux mezzo Kathleen Reveille - Doll Tearsheet in the Holst - simply does not have the same expressive range. Allied to that she uses a tight and fast almost fluttery vibrato throughout that I have to say I found unattractive. Another oddity, earlier in the work when the two sisters realise that the washed-up clothing does belong to the other brother Michael there is a great cry by one of the sisters Nora “...its Michael..” [on a tangent, the music here strongly reminiscent of the 6th Symphony as the use of the wordless chorus later pre-echoes the 7th]- Davies is the best of the 3 at getting a galvanic upsurge from the orchestra. In what sounds like an editing error on the new Dux, there is a disastrous three and a half second of dead silence which does nothing except destroy any tension.

Generally, the sound on this new disc is good - a rather resonant concert hall exaggerates some of the lower frequencies which is more of a problem in the neat counterpoint of the Holst. There is next to no audience noise at all - applause is retained in the Holst but not the Vaughan Williams - but the concert-hall setting does make for a vocally static experience. Except for the obvious requirements of offstage voices in the Vaughan Williams all the voices stick pretty much to a single position in the stereo mix. Somewhat surprisingly, neither of the earlier sets is in any way supplanted in recording terms by this new one. The Chandos disc is the most impressive technically of the three but Davies’ cast is the best. That being said, I like a lot the emotionally frozen way - slowest of the three - Linda Finnie for Hickox floats her final “they are all gone...”.

As mentioned, this new set is a very handsomely presented. Each opera is presented alone on a single disc. This does not make for a very long total playing time but conversely, the set is being sold effectively at a 2-for-1 price. The booklet is attractive with full libretti in English and Polish only. In addition there are good essays on each work and extensive artist biographies. The orchestral accompaniment throughout is neat and attentive but somehow lacking brilliance in the Holst and fluidity in the Vaughan Williams. For live performances these are solidly effective but without rising to the greatest heights.

As ever, the opportunity to hear any British opera performed by anybody except British artists is to be welcomed and praised. However, the welcome has to be qualified by the observation that existing versions in the catalogue are not seriously challenged by this new set.

Nick Barnard

Previous review: Stuart Sillitoe