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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. August & November 2020, Potton Hall, Dunwich, UK
CHANDOS CHAN20239(2) [47:30 + 46:03]

I’m sure Sir Arthur Sullivan would be more than slightly miffed if he had known that the vast majority of the public, even in Britain, would only ever know him for his partnership with W. S. Gilbert. He wrote plenty beyond the Savoy operas: that his output beyond G&S has largely been forgotten is partly because of the sheer popularity of his operettas, and even opera snobs tend to enjoy the pairing of his music with Gilbert’s witty words, though not all of them will admit it.

However, there is another reason why so much of Sullivan’s music has been forgotten, and it’s to do with the changing taste of the times. Sullivan was steeped in the do-gooder generosity of his age, up to his neck in Christian morality and Victorian duty to help your fellow man, with a hefty helping of sentimentality on the side. David Owen Norris, the pianist on this disc and the driving force of the project, it seems, argues that the times have begun to change back, and that that’s why it’s time for a revival of interest in Sullivan’s songs.

I’m not convinced. I listened to this double-disc of songs (I haven’t heard the first volume) with interest, attention and curiosity; but I was never stirred, and remained resolutely sceptical throughout. And I speak as someone with a real weakness for Victorian sentiment: a well sung Long Day Closes or The Holy City reduces me to tears every time!

It’s partly because of Sullivan's frequent choice of mawkish texts, some of which are really awful; but it’s also that the music is only rarely inspired, and never bears comparison with the great song-writers of continental Europe or even, later, with Britten in the UK. You may cry foul and claim that it’s an unfair comparison, but if you’re trying to argue a case for Sullivan the songsmith then the comparisons are unavoidable, and he is unarguably found wanting.

In Thou Art Weary, for example, a dreadful poem about the mother of a starving child is redeemed (slightly) by a gentle, recurring refrain, but it's rendered almost comical by its didactic directness. Longfellow’s Living Poems has a view of children that comes from a very different age, but to us cynical inhabitants of the 21st century his attitude towards them sounds a little creepy! The text of The Sailor’s Grave had me reaching for the sick bucket, and Sullivan’s sickly-sweet setting doesn’t help it.

Elsewhere, the strophic settings are often pretty bland, and some of the more extended ones fail to grab: the last three songs on the first disc are straightforward examples of both. So Schubert he ain't, and I’d decided that even before I heard The Maiden’s Song, which sounds like a very pale (and very English) imitation of Gretchen am Spinnrade.

That said, there were several things I enjoyed: Let me dream again, for example, is a combination of pastoral and nostalgia that plays to all of Sullivan's strengths. Elsewhere, however, it’s the lighter, jollier songs that always come off best; and can it be a coincidence that two of them are to words by W. S. Gilbert? Over the roof, in addition, sounds like it was lifted straight out of an operetta (and it pretty much was), and the opening and closing songs have jolly quartets at their heart.

I don’t want to sound too down on the project: I’ll always welcome the revival of a composer’s neglected repertoire, and I’ve no doubt there’s an audience out there that will lap it up. Furthermore, none of my reservations are down to the performers or the presentation. It’s to the credit of Chandos - and of the Sir Arthur Sullivan Society, who sponsor the release - that they have presented it with the highest possible production values and a cast of genuinely interesting performers. Mary Bevan’s clean soprano is contrasted well with Kitty Whately’s strong mezzo; Ben Johnson’s soft, lyrical tenor is beautiful, and Ashley Riches is by turns authoritative and jocular. David Owen Norris plays this music as though it is utterly deserving of the high esteem he no doubt feels for it, and the recorded sound is excellent, as is the booklet, which contains all the sung texts.

However, interesting as this disc is, it has not led me to hail Sullivan’s songs as the great, undiscovered jewels of Victorian music. Sometimes I was diverted and occasionally entertained, but never once moved.

Simon Thompson

CD 1
1. King Henry’s song (1877)
2. The Lady of the Lake (1864)
3. I heard the nightingale (1863)
4. Over the roof (1864)
5. Will he come? (1865)
6. Give (1867)
7. Thou art weary (1874
8. The moon in silent brightness (1868)
9. O fair dove! O fond dove! (1868)
10. The snow lies white (1868)
11. Looking back (1870)
12. Looking forward (1873)

CD 2
1. The maiden’s story (1867)
2. Living poems (1874)
3. The sailor’s grave (1872)
4. Let me dream again(1875)
5. Other days (late 1890s)
6. Little maid of Arcadee (1871)
7. The distant shore (1874)
8. The love that loves me not (1875)
9. A shadow (1884)
10. The lost chord (1877)
11. The absent-minded beggar (1899)

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