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Edward SOLOMON (1855-1895) & F.C. BURNAND (1836-1917)
Pickwick [55:00]
George GROSSMITH (1847-1912)
Cups and Saucers [18:18]
Simon Butteriss (baritone), Gaynor Keeble (mezzo-soprano), Toby Stafford-Allen (baritone), Alessandro MacKinnon (boy soprano)
Stephen Higgins (piano and musical director)
rec. London, 2016

This CD by Retrospect Opera features first recordings of both Solomon and Burnand’s Pickwick, and George Grossmith’s Cups and Saucers. Retrospect Opera aims to combine research with high quality recordings, so as to make forgotten British operatic music available. Their first opera recording was Ethel Smyth’s The Boatswain’s Mate in August 2016, this one being their second release.

Burnand’s libretto for Pickwick is based on the scene of the trial for breach of promise in Charles Dickens’ Pickwick Papers, featuring four characters from the novel, namely Mr Pickwick (Simon Butteriss), Mrs Bardell (Gaynor Keeble), Mrs Bardell’s son Tommy (Alessandro MacKinnon) and the Baker (Toby Stafford Allen). It premiered in 1889 and a vocal score was published soon after. At the time it was rated as the most successful of musical adaptations of Dickens’ novels, which might be explained by the sheer lack of any other notable ones. The orchestral score, however, was lost, so we have to make do with Stephen Higgins’ sound piano accompaniment in this recording. He worked at ROH, Glyndebourne and ENO, and has been Head of Music at Bergen Nasjonale opera in Norway since January 2016.

Sir Francis Cowley Burnand was an English comic writer and playwright, who produced more than 200 burlesques, farces, pantomimes, and wrote the libretto for Arthur Sullivan’s Cox and Box. Unsurprisingly, Pickwick is full of puns and reminds one at more than one point of Burnand’s Cox and Box. Burnand and Solomon collaborated on two more works apart from Pickwick, both not very successful. As Edward Solomon’s father was a music hall pianist, conductor and composer, it does not come as a surprise that Edward picked up playing the piano as a boy in the music halls and took to writing songs. When he became musical director at the Royalty Theatre he conducted, amongst other works, Arthur Sullivan’s The Zoo. Some of his works where produced by the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company at the Savoy Theatre. To say that Solomon was second only to Sullivan might be a bit of an exaggeration, though. The music to Pickwick is sound and features some melodious highlights, but apart from the joyous “baker-roll”, is far from scratching more than the surface of one’s ear or being memorable. Solomon also wrote ballads like ‘I Should Like To’, and numerous salon piano solos and arrangements. For instance, he arranged George Grossmith’s ‘See Me Dance the Polka’ for piano, which became hugely successful. Burnand, too, knew Grossmith well, as he edited The Diary of a Nobody by George and Weedon Grossmith. Due to all these connections with the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company and Sullivan, this CD has been part-funded by the Sir Arthur Sullivan Society.

George Grossmith was, apart from his Gilbert & Sullivan fame, well-loved for his own comic piano sketches and songs, making him arguably the most popular British solo performer of the 1890s. He created approximately 600 songs and piano pieces, nearly 100 musical sketches and 18 comic operas. Cups and Saucers premiered in 1876 as part of an evening of piano sketches by Grossmith and was adopted by the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company in 1878 as a curtain-raiser to H.M.S. Pinafore at the Opera Comique. It is a one-act “satirical musical sketch” and ridicules the vogue for the collecting china at the end of the 19th century. The two protagonists General Deelah (Simon Butteriss) and Mrs Worcester (Gaynor Keeble) intend to marry, only to sell off each other’s collection of china, which turns out to be of no worth whatsoever. Cups and Saucers, however, does have its worth and this recording is of value.

The CD case and booklet feature the cover of the Pickwick Waltz sheet music, showing a drawing of a Victorian street. The booklet contains thorough information and gives good insights, reproducing the librettos for both pieces. However, the recording of Pickwick falls short of the great expectations I had. Cups and Saucers is better, for two reasons: music and text are more coherent, and it benefits from the lack of a boy soprano. No doubt Alessandro McKinnon has been a very talented chorister, but his voice just doesn’t work with the other singers in Pickwick. He would have hugely benefited from some experience or instruction as to how to interpret songs of this genre. Apart from this, his voice shows hints of breaking, which does not improve the aforementioned unfortunate circumstance. All of this is most deplorable because it significantly lowers the enjoyment one might have had in Pickwick, which is unlikely to be recorded again soon. Cups and Saucers, however, can only profit from this recording and after 55 minutes of Pickwick, comes as (albeit short) mollifying afterpiece.

All in all, this recording and Retrospect Opera’s venture is laudable and since their catalogue is still so very small as they have only started recently, one is curiously anticipating what they will be unearthing next.

Maximilian Burgdörfer

Previous review: Jonathan Woolf


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