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Gustav HOLST (1874-1934)
At the Boar’s Head, Op. 42 [35:18]
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 [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. live, Warsaw Philharmonic Concert Hall, 16 March (Holst), 18 March (Vaughan Williams), 2016.
DUX 1307/8 [55:11 + 38:29]

A curiosity but an interesting one.

It is always good to hear non-British performances of British works. No-one thinks that the Germans have a monopoly on the performance of German works, and yet there is often an insularity of mind that thinks only of British performers for British works. British music has been too long a well-kept secret, and this recording is welcome not least for its provenance.

Welcome too is the first complete recorded performance of Holst’s At the Boar’s Head. Holst was, I think, not a natural composer of operas. The hour-long The Perfect Fool tends to be known only for its orchestral suite, but is worth reviving. Given its brief length, it needs to be coupled with something else of similar length for a satisfactory evening. This Falstaff opera, At the Boar’s Head, from 1924, might be that piece. The music is attractive, interesting and, with Shakespeare as its source, sets verse which is intrinsically excellent.

Whether it works as an opera is a moot point. There are moments of comedy which might play well on stage, but no great dramatic tension. Perhaps that is because parts of the tale are familiar from the plays, partly too because, despite the brief length, the piece is episodic – a set of scenes within the theme of Falstaff’s character, rather than a dramatic whole.

This live recording combines Polish singers, mainly in lesser parts, with others largely from the United States. The recording is well-made with virtually no audience sound, and, for me, the standout singer is the New Zealand bass-baritone as Falstaff. It would be good to hear him perhaps in Vaughan Williams’ Sir John in Love, a fine opera, too rarely given.

If the Holst is an interesting hour, Riders to the Sea is an unqualified masterpiece. Vaughan Williams’ amendments to Synge’s original text are few – it is prose that verges on poetry. The original one act play has an extraordinary power in its courage to be simple. It has the inevitability of a Greek tragedy: one recognises at once that the last son of Maurya will die – there is an inevitability to this, and a universality in the grief and acceptance shown. Like a Greek tragedy it has the elements of the three unities of time, place and action, and Maurya’s daughters act as a chorus commenting on events, as well as having their own roles to play.

The genius of Vaughan Williams is to recognise the universality and not to indulge in any Oirishry in the music, as a lesser composer, keen to demonstrate the work as Irish, might have done. Music acts in service to the word as written and spoken, but there is a laconic depth to the music.

This performance is worthy, without really doing full justice to the piece. The orchestral elements sound like accompaniment when greater tension would have been appropriate. The voices blend well enough, but the mixture of accents is distracting in a way I did not find in the Holst.

For a modern recording, that by Hickox from 1995 (Chandos CHAN10870X), with Linda Finnie and Lynne Dawson, is preferable. It has more tension, even though a couple of minutes longer. Vaughan Williams brought out the best in Hickox, and he seems to have had a particular affection for this work. He was due to conduct performances at ENO beginning a few days after his sudden death. I remember well the grief palpable in the audience and cast on that evening. The Chandos recording makes up the length with a good performance of Flos Campi and the Household Music, a world premiere of three preludes on Welsh hymn tunes.

Perhaps even finer is the 1971 recording conducted by Meredith Davies, with Norma Burrowes, Helen Watts and Margaret Price (EMI 764730-2), coupled with Epithalamion and Merciless Beauty. Swifter than either of the other two, it goes to the heart of the work.

Michael Wilkinson
Previous reviews: Stuart Sillitoe ~ Nick Barnard