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Sir Arthur SULLIVAN (1842-1900)
Songs
Mary Bevan (soprano)¹
Ben Johnson (tenor)²
Ashley Riches (bass-baritone)³
David Owen Norris (piano)
rec. Potton Hall, Dunwich, Suffolk, April/ May 2016
Sung texts enclosed, non-English texts with English translations
CHANDOS CHAN10935(2) [80:54 + 65:43]

As a long-time admirer of Gilbert & Sullivan’s light operas I have for some reason never become acquainted with Sullivan’s songs. The Lost Chord of course – Caruso’s recording is legendary – but little else. And there are a lot of them. According to a list I found on the internet, there are 79 separate songs plus the song cycle The Window, so this set contains half the total. A lot of them have been recorded, on 78s as well as later formats, but the present issue is probably the most comprehensive album so far of his song oeuvre. The compositions span practically his whole creative life, from O Israel, a setting of words from the Book of Hosea, composed by a 13-year-old boy, to a couple of Tennyson settings, O swallow, swallow and Tears, idle tears, from 1900, the year of Sullivan’s death.

Coming to the songs with fresh ears I find many of them attractive, melodious but harmonically rather uneventful. But Sullivan was never an innovator – his ideal was rather conservative but within his chosen scope he managed to create a lot of charming, and occasionally more deep-probing, songs. Anyone who like me is fond of the Savoy operas, should find a lot to admire in this collection. The Shakespeare settings that open the first disc can stand comparison with contemporaneous efforts by other composers. Sigh no more, ladies catches the interest at once, as does the hearty O mistress mine, dedicated to the great Charles Santley. The Willow Song and Love laid his sleepless head, both exquisitely song by the excellent Mary Bevan, are real gems. The latter comes from incidental music to The Merry Wives of Windsor and the words are not by Shakespeare, but the song is delicious. The early composition Where the bee sucks (1861) – here it is genuine Shakespeare – is a third gem, again sung by Ms Bevan.

When we leave Shakespeare’s world we find Sweet Day, which is dedicated to a certain Mrs Goldschmidt, who was no less a person than Jenny Lind, the celebrated soprano who had encouraged Sullivan in his career. The Arabian Love Song (text by Shelley) has a slightly exotic flavour and Guinevere, one of several settings of Lionel H. Lewin, is long and dramatically intense. Lewin was a close friend of Sullivan’s and they planned to write an opera together on the subject of Guinevere, but this ballad is the only result of the liaison. It is a truly gripping song. Lewin died two years later of typhoid fever, aged only 28.

On CD 2 we have Sullivan’s only song cycle. The composer approached Lord Tennyson and asked him to write a cycle of the kind Schubert and Schumann had composed. The Poet Laureate did so, but afterwards he had second thoughts and offered Sullivan £500 to abandon the project. Sullivan persisted however, and though the poems are hardly on a level one would expect from a Poet Laureate, the cycle from a musical point of view is commendable. Don’t expect it to be anyway near the heights of Schubert and Schumann, but on a more modest level it has quite a lot to offer. Ben Johnson performs it with conviction and, even though there are weak spots vocally, the end result is quite beguiling.

There are several charming songs besides the cycle on disc II: a couple of songs from the stage, some songs in foreign languages, including two German settings from his late teens, and two Victor Hugo settings, one of them in English translation. The beautiful and a little old-fashioned Mary Morison is Sullivan’s only setting of a poem by Robert Burns, and the concluding number, the duet Sweetheart, one of three settings of W.S.Gilbert not connected with the theatre, is a real gem, with its near Viennese lilt. George Bernard Shaw regarded it, together with another three songs as ‘the very best of their genre.

The singing is a little variable. Mary Bevan is superb in whatever songs she indulges in: a beautiful, crystal-clear voice, nuanced singing with lovely pianissimos and dramatic intensity when needed. The gentlemen sing with great involvement and make the most of their words but Ben Johnson tends to press his basically beautiful tenor too hard in places and Ashley Riches’ vibrato sometimes becomes too wide and wobbly and the tone grows coarse. The versatile David Owen Norris is an ideal accompanist and the recording is impeccable. There are extensive notes on the songs, very valuable.

Even though I have some misgivings concerning some of the male singing, this is an important addition to the Sullivan discography – lovers of his music should invest in this set at once.

Göran Forsling

Previous review: Raymond Walker

Contents
CD 1 [80:54]
Five Shakespeare Songs (1863-64) [13:41]
1. Sigh no more, ladies² [2:39]
2. Orpheus with his lute¹ [3:37]
3. O mistress mine³ [2:06]
4. The Willow Song¹ [2:55]
5. Rosalind² [2:23]
6. Love laid his sleepless head (Swinburne)¹ (1874) [2:57]
7. Nel ciel seren ² (Rizzelli) (1871) [3:56]
8. Where the bee sucks¹ (Shakespeare) (1861) [1:49]
9. I wish to tune my quivering lyre³ (Anacreon, transl. Byron) (1868) [6:38]
10. Sweet Day¹ (Herbert) (1864) [3:26]
11. Arabian Love Song² (Shelley) (1866) [2:35]
12. Birds in the Night¹ (Lewin) (1869) [4:00]
13. A life that lives for you³ (Lewin) (1870) [3:27]
14. Once again² (Lewin) (1872) [3:43]
15. Golden Days³ (Lewin) (1872) [2:18]
16. Guinevere¹ (Lewin) (1872) [6:16]
17. None but I can say³ (Lewin) (1872) [2:53]
18. O Israel¹ (Book of Hosea) (1855) [3:21]
19. St Agnes’ Eve¹ (Tennyson) (1879) [4:43]
20. Edward Gray³ (Tennyson) (1880) [4:28]
21. What does little birdie say?¹ (Tennyson) (1867) [2:43]
22. O swallow, swallow² (Tennyson) (1900) [2:43]
23. Tears, idle tears³ (Tennyson) (1900) [4:08]

CD 2 [65:43]
The Window; or the Songs of the Wrens, Song Cycle² (Tennyson) (1870) [27:10]
1. I. On the Hill [3:30]
2. II. At the Window [2:55]
3. III. Gone! [2:15]
4. IV. Winter [1:51]
5. V. Spring [2:07]
6. VI. The Letter [2:44]
7. VII. No Answer [3:00]
8. VIII. No Answer [2:29]
9. IX. The Answer [1:29]
10. X. When? [1:31]
11. XI. Marriage Morning [3:17]
12. Bid me at least goodbye³ (Grundy) (1894) [2:54]
13. E tu nol sai² (Mazzucato) (1889) [3:37]
14. Ich möchte hinaus es jauchzen³ (Corrodi) (1859) [1:53]
15. Lied mit Thränen halbgeschrieben² (Eichendorff) (1861) [1:48]
16. Oh! Ma charmante³ (Hugo) (1872) [2:46]
17. I would I were a King³ (Hugo transl Cockburn) (1878) [2:44]
18. Sad Memories¹ (Rowe) (1869) [4:13]
19. Ever² (Bloomfield-Moore) (1887) [2:58]
20. Mary Morison³ (Burns) (1874) [3:18]
21. Old Love Letters¹ (Cowan) (1879) [4:22]
22. Country Guy³ (Scott) (1867) [2:44]
23. Sweethearts¹³, Duet (Gilbert) (1875) [4:22]

 

 




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