Sir Arthur SULLIVAN (1842-1900)
The Harmonious Echo
Mary Bevan (soprano), Kitty Whately (mezzo), Ben Johnson (tenor), Ashley Riches (bass-baritone)
David Owen Norris (piano)
rec. 2020, Potton Hall, Dunwich, UK
Sung texts enclosed
CHANDOS CHAN20239(2) [47:00 + 46:03]
Following a first 2-CD set recorded in 2016, simply titled ‘Sullivan songs’ and well received in Musicweb (review), here’s a second from David Owen-Norris, a venerable accompanist to outstanding up-and-coming singers of today. For this one they’re joined by the mezzo Kitty Whately. This set’s title comes from its most famous song, The lost chord, which “seem’d the harmonious echo/From our discordant life” and in his booklet note of passionate advocacy, just like his playing, Owen Norris suggests this is a good metaphor for Sullivan as a songster, looking at Victorian “urgent emotional and moral concerns in music of passion and beauty.” As I often do, I’ve made a selection, in this case of ten from the twenty-three songs featured in this set, allowing me to make some comparison with other recordings. But I was unable to use my standard procedure owing to two factors which highlight this set’s value. Firstly, there are ten songs because these were all I could get scores for in one of the largest music collections in the United Kingdom, albeit not one specializing in Sullivan. Secondly, out of these ten songs, for only five are there other recordings currently available, in the case of The Sailor’s Grave a recording 119 years’ old. It’s not uncommon with modern music for the sound recording to be the main means of public access, but here this applies to music between 122 and 157 years’ old. The songs’ dates are in the contents/track list and singers per song at the end of this review.
King Henry’s Song, which starts CD1, was originally in Sullivan’s incidental music for Shakespeare and Fletcher’s Henry VIII and is a philosophy of life that amounts to having fun and exercise through hunting, singing and dancing, are better than idleness for keeping vices away. Sullivan’s setting is comfortable with such a text, rather more of the flavour of Sir John Falstaff in that other Shakespeare play, The Merry Wives of Windsor. This Andante moderato is sung robustly by bass-baritone Ashley Riches and goes with a swing prompted by David Owen-Norris’ piano introduction. One thing I particularly like about his playing is that, whenever his part is marked forte, he really gives it some welly and the singers must respond. The refrains of the three verses are marked ‘Chorus ad lib.’ and, having four soloists available for this CD set, the opportunity is taken to feature them all in this song and the final song of the set, The Absent-minded Beggar. This first chorus has a comely jollity, nevertheless taking care not to upstage the monarch. It sounds pretty well, given that the soprano was recorded in November and the other voices in August and, with Covid protocols in place, probably all separately to Owen Norris’ backing track.
You can get a glimpse of the original incidental music in a 1992 recording by the tenor Emmanuel Lawler with the RTE Concert Orchestra/Andrew Penny (Marco Polo 8.223461, download only). This is more moderato, timing at 3:00 to Riches/Owen-Norris’ 2:18. Lawler has a pleasant, small and pretty voice, sounding like a curate, as if butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth. Hardly the merry monarch. The choruses are played by the orchestra, except in the last verse where Henry sings it and there’s a different, more upbeat climax, presumably the stage version. I also compare singing close to Sullivan’s time in the recording by baritone Andrew Black with an anonymous pianist in 1904 (Symposium SYMPCD 1123). Here’s another level of robustness, you might say rousing through bawling, yet he brings the most effective last verse close, projecting his upper register with commendable ease.
The Lady of the Lake is the title of the song beginning ‘I have slept beneath the water’ that she sings in the masque Kenilworth, an Allegro grazioso with prominent clusters of semiquaver ripples in the piano accompaniment bass as well as springing quavers in the treble, originally orchestrally for violin and flute, when the voice is silent. Owen Norris makes everything bubble and the soprano Mary Bevan is full of confidence, especially when, awake, she trills with joy to welcomer newcomers and “the merry days are now” with a melisma of eleven notes on “merry” which at the climax of the song is changed to “golden”, Bevan easily accomplishing the alternative top B. The song’s melody is gracefully curvaceous, the solo more virtuosic than the norm for Sullivan yet still quite light in manner and still here conveyed with gleaming energy. There’s one currently available 2013 recording of the original orchestral version which I haven’t heard but my colleague Rob Barnett liked (review), commenting on the Mendelssohnian quality of the music, praise often given to early Sullivan.
I heard the nightingale is an Allegro moderato in which the piano introductions give the pianist the opportunity to mimic birdsong above a running quaver bass. The singer sympathises with the nightingale’s grieving, but the bird responds emphatically that she loves. And it’s the same in verse 2 with the stock dove, save that her asseveration is marked appassionata. And it’s the same in verse 3 with the singer himself, allowed two asseverations, the second ff con passione. Every time that ‘love’ demands a top A flat from Johnson, fervently negotiated, while in the penultimate paused quaver on the repeat of ‘I love’ he gives us a magnificent top B flat rather than the tame printed E flat, full marks to him for that which makes a better prelude to Owen Norris’ explosive ff con fuoco postlude. There are no other currently available recordings. Well, it’s not a song for the faint-hearted.
The Sailor’s Grave is a ballad style epitaph of “the gallant and the free”, but I feel loses a little in appeal by not being personal, like Tom Bowling, the Dibdin song later arranged by Britten. I think Mary Bevan’s tone at the beginning is just right: respectful, pure toned but restrained in voice, catching Sullivan’s melodious, balanced, tender setting of what is a somewhat over-the- top, sentimental text. Owen Norris’ piano introduction is used for all three verses. He plays its final two crotchets staccato which is not marked, but feels right because there’s a neatness about this eulogy at first. I like the ornament Bevan adds at ‘rest’ at the end of the second verse, which is fitting given the ad lib encouragement in the score. It also marks a transition point in the song from the serenity of the first two verses to the maestoso rhetoric, ‘Sleep on thou mighty dead!’, of the third. Our humble sailor needs must have ‘a glorious tomb’, but that will be eventually smashed so he can “rise and shine in Heav’n!” Well, this does focus the listener’s attention on what may lie beyond and makes for a rousing close with Bevan thrillingly accepting the higher top A climax suggestion at the first “rise” (tr. 3, 4:19). Even so, for me this final verse is unduly protracted, taking 2:39 where the first two verses take 1:04 and 1:08.
To find another recording currently available I had to go back to 1902 and the tenor Ben Davies with an anonymous pianist (Symposium SYMPCD 1123, which also contained King Henry’s Song I discussed earlier). This omits verse 2, so Davies to signal the song’s transition takes extravagant advantage of the ad lib marking at the end of verse 1, in his case when those salt waves are ‘washing’ over the dead sailor, where Bevan ignores this ad lib, which by definition is fine. Davies gets through verse 1 in 1:07 and verse 3 in 1:44, but the lesson of this performance is that he makes verse 3 more electric, wholehearted and unashamed, treating maestoso, majestic, more as an indication of mood than tempo (it can be either). So, from Davies we get the top A and its ritenuto lasting 3 seconds, which doesn’t sound much, but you try singing it on your highest note, while Bevan is effective at just one second. Davies also brings back the top A, not marked, for the final ‘shine’. What a trooper. He created the title role of Ivanhoe in Sullivan’s heroic opera.
Let me dream again begins with a piano solo that’s immediately loud and bright, then almost as immediately softening and shadowy, a rather extreme and swift version of a sunset, yet a suitable introduction to an agreeable Andante espressivo piece of pure melodrama. It might be the opening of a conspiratorial operetta scene. The clarity with which the unfolding text is expressed is significant and Kitty Whately is very good at this: a voice alert and in control despite the gathering gloom. And then, with a couple of telling rests, the real point of the anxiety: a man is whispering encouragingly and the singer decides to capitulate. In an operetta this would be a maiden past her prime with a comically over-inflated sense of her own attractiveness, but here it’s played straight. Whately is in her prime and you believe from her poise that she’s just then discovering her feelings. So, to the refrain, the most memorable part of the song, ‘Is this a dream?’ and its climax, ‘do not wake me, let me dream again’. The second verse text treads water until suddenly the action, ‘I feel his kisses on my fever’d brow’, immediately followed by regret and plunge into lower, strong mezzo tessitura, ‘If we must part, ah! why should it be now?’. Whately/Owen Norris really mark the pathos of the pp beginning of the refrain this time, while in the appassionato climax Whately now gives us the alternative higher top G. I found another recording, date unknown, by the soprano Patricia Sabin with pianist Margaret Lion (Griffin Records GRF-ED-4009, no longer available but you can stream it on Naxos Music Library). Timing at 4:28 to Whately/Owen Norris’ 4:50, this has a little less poise and less telling dynamic contrast, while Sabin’s greater use of vibrato brings for me a sensitive but rather mousy, old maid approach.
Other Days would appear to date from the late 1890s and is therefore very late in Sullivan’s output. Its wry contrasts are emphasised by music that’s disarmingly out of kilter from time to time. The opening section is unusually hyperactive in its gaiety, even for Sullivan, but I was completely thrown by the opening twelve notes being identical to Ron Grainer’s ‘Old Ned’, the theme he wrote for the British sitcom Steptoe and Son. You can find Grainer’s 1962 recording on Youtube by searching under ‘Steptoe and Son theme’. Sullivan’s music pokes fun at the probity of the text, most clearly in the semiquavers’ rigmarole that closes the section. Then the second section is a drawl, well almost, it’s marked A tempo un poco lento, and it’s a brief, classic Sullivan operetta warm theme of just one sequence that’s here used to reflect in a chastened manner on a decline of standards, after which he immediately refers again to the ‘Steptoe’ theme, where the skilful tweaking of its just one sequence and the slower tempo transform it. Ashley Riches sings all this moderately becomingly, sometimes with hints of parlando, which I like. In repeated playing over acting would irritate. Owen Norris’ accompaniment has enough spark for both of them. No other recordings are currently available.
Little Maid of Arcadee is the only solo song that has survived from Thespis, Sullivan’s first stage collaboration with Gilbert, because it was published separately, with some text variations more suitable for home use, as the one Owen Norris points out in his booklet note, the maid ‘sat by’ rather than ‘on’ cousin Robin’s knee. It’s all tripping happiness in piano and voice and especially the refrain. Owen Norris gives it just the right amount of swing and Ben Johnson sings it with taste and style, maybe just the hint of a smirk as he glides through the transitoriness of a relationship. In the published version, the man ‘Fickle as the month of May’ doesn’t deride the Maid as the theatre version does with ‘Weary of his lover’s play’. Yet in the longer term this is of no significance with another cousin to woo. You get that specificity from the theatre original: ‘Cousin Richard’ rather than the published vague ‘another’. The effect of the performance is nevertheless all charmingly innocent and, although without this specific marking, semplice, though that’s a marking Elgar, rather less given to irony, liked. I’m surprised there are no other recordings currently available.
The Distant Shore is another setting of Gilbert, but this time just of a freestanding song. Though marked Allegro comodo, the piano has a perky and quite exotic introduction. Think Richard Rodgers’ March of the Siamese Children in The King and I (1951), but it’s more gauche than that as Owen Norris gives it us. Then accompaniment in ever staccato running quavers which make an agitated background for the maiden sighing, thinking of her lover on the distant shore ‘A-dying for news of me”. Kitty Whately’s musing eagerness and innocence is a good foil for the active surround. In a comely refrain, “Be of good cheer, sweet heart” the wind offers to act as go-between, telling her lover of her love for ever (verse 1). Looks like a thoroughly happy arrangement (verse 2), but in an animato final verse opening the lover sank in a gale and the maiden dies at the wind’s news. Slower refrain now and clearly marked p, but the same music and consoling because maiden and lover are now together, f, for ever on a redefined distant shore. And this is Sullivan’s genius, that the refrain can serve both purposes, just as Gilbert plays with the two meanings of the distant shore. The collaboration fits like a glove. There are no other recordings currently available.
The Lost Chord is Sullivan’s best-known song and the only fully religious one in this set. It’s unabashed Victorian sentimentality and I suppose today, like Marmite, you either love or hate it. Personally, I can’t stand Marmite, but I do respond to the way Sullivan stokes up religious fervour here. On the other hand, I also find Kitty Whately and David Owen Norris’ restraint in its performance admirable. Marked Andante moderato, Owen Norris brings breadth and calm to the piano introduction, a magnanimity, Whately conveys a reverence born of experience, an emotive pulse to the narrative that she’s burning to tell, but not overcooking it, so ultimately you appreciate the firmness of her fervent Grandioso close (tr. 10, 3:03) in which the thrill of the climactic top G on ‘Heav’n’ seems inevitable. Mean time the ‘infinite calm’ of verse 2 has been aided by Owen Norris’ creamy right-hand accompaniment, while the vain search for ‘one lost chord divine’ is suitably agitato as the voice follows the piano (2:38).
I’m able to compare the performance of the tenor Ben Johnson who also appears in this set, but this piece he recorded in 2015 with James Baillieu at the piano (Opus Arte Rosenblatt Recitals OACD 9032D). Timing at 3:53 to Whately/Owen Norris’ 4:10, they choose an approach of ever animated, dramatic outpouring. For me this makes Baillieu’s introduction more self-conscious and, at the end of verse 1, I prefer Whately’s singing the ‘Amen’ as written, A minim ‘A’ then G dotted minim ‘men’, to reverent effect, rather than Johnson giving it a flourish, making the ‘A’ an appoggiatura A crotchet and G crotchet before the G dotted minim ‘men’. That said, Johnson’s tranquillo ‘one perfect peace’ in the second verse is beautifully done, the agitato of the third verse is more marked and the ‘Heav’n’ climax milked a bit, but, for all that, it’s hard not to succumb to this performance.
Much the same may be said of The Absent-Minded Beggar which closes this set. It’s an Allegro moderato e energico, Tempo di marcia potboiler, effectively a patter-song relished by Ashley Riches, alluding to the adventures of the men who enlisted, but asking for money “to help the home that Tommy’s left behind him!” The words are by Rudyard Kipling and contain rather more colour and variety than Sullivan’s music, but both serve their purpose in lending a jolly hinterland to what is a serious subject, reminding the listener of his/her good fortune and encouraging a generous response. It’s all in a good cause and, like Beethoven’s Wellington’s Victory, brought in donations for sore need. The chorus goes with a hearty swing here, as might be expected given that it’s straightforwardly in unison, to complete the four verses and brings all the performers in this set together in the unequivocal appeal “Pay, pay, pay!” Then Owen Norris has the closing spotlight with a dazzling but brief piano postlude fanfare. There are no other recordings currently available.
This set does challenge you to consider reappraising Sullivan: both my colleague Simon Thompson, whose review is linked below and I independently do this. Was Sullivan better with or without Gilbert? Listen to the 2 songs by Gilbert, as noted above, and 21 with words by others, though I’d suggest that Sullivan, like Elgar, wasn’t always astute in his choice of texts. Often, I miss Gilbert’s acid wit, for which Sullivan is both a foil and an enhancement. I think Sullivan’s pre-Gilbert orchestral music showed much potential. I think I’m a touch more upbeat than Simon but he makes a valuable point that part of the problem is that Sullivan’s time is of values and approaches we don’t favour today. But, to come back to the music, I suggest Sullivan was content with what he could accomplish relatively easily. His songs are easy on the ear, fun to sing and hear but usually predictable, though the master stroke of The distant shore as I note in my consideration of it is that it isn’t. In this set four voices and vocal timbres bring variety, but not a lot. Sullivan can do pathos and longing, but he excels in comedy, parody and happy music to make you happy. Not all roses then, yet if you already enjoy what Sullivan can do well, you will meet some new friends in this set, and that includes its performers.
Previous review: Simon Thompson
- tr. 1, King Henry’s song (1877) [Riches and chorus]
- tr. 2, The Lady of the Lake (1864) [Bevan]
- tr. 3, I heard the nightingale (1863) [Johnson]
- tr. 4, Over the roof (1864) [Bevan]
- tr. 5, Will He Come? (1865) [Whately]
- tr. 6, Give (1867) [Bevan]
- tr. 7, Thou art weary (1874) [Whatley]
- tr. 8, The moon in silent brightness (1868) [Johnson]
- tr. 9, O fair dove! O fond dove! (1868) [Whatley]
- tr. 10, The snow lies white (1868) [Johnson]
- tr. 11, Looking Back (1870) [Riches]
- tr. 12, Looking Forward (1873) [Riches]
- tr. 1, The Maiden’s Story (1867) [Johnson]
- tr. 2, Living Poems (1874) [Whatley]
- tr. 3, The Sailor’s Grave (1872) [Bevan]
- tr. 4, Let me dream again (1875) [Whately]
- tr. 5, Other Days (late 1890s) [Riches]
- tr. 6, Little Maid of Arcadee (1871) [Johnson]
- tr. 7, The Distant Shore (1874) [Whatley]
- tr. 8, The love that loves me not (1875) [Johnson]
- tr. 9, A Shadow (1884) [Johnson]
- tr. 10, The Lost Chord (1877) [Whately]
- tr. 11, The Absent-Minded Beggar (1899) [Riches and chorus]