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Grove And The Crystal Palace From Symposium Records
by Charles A. Hooey

I couldn't believe this CD I received from England. I knew not what to expect, for all the catalogue listing gave was the promising title: "Sir George Grove and the Crystal Palace" with nary a hint of the solo singing featured. When I finished listening, I just had to hear it again and again.

From the cover, a pensive, mutton-chopped Sir George looks out to welcome one and all to his Crystal Palace. After assuming control in 1852, he soon elevated it to premium entertainment status in Britain, a ranking it held for 85 years. On the CD, those halcyon years are celebrated in opera, oratorio and song, performed by eighteen, largely British-based artistes from the dawn of recording. Grove became the first principal of the Royal College of Music but his name lives on in the Dictionary of Music he founded.

As it happened, I was preparing a story about the first Apostles for the Elgar folks so all this was atmospheric to say the least ... although not a note of Elgar was heard. It simply transported me back to those fabled times.

The vocal items are well-known 78 rpms and a few of the rarest. Of the former, Agnes Nicholls sings "I will extol Thee" from Eli by Sir Michael Costa, the first overseer of the massive Handelian events held in the Palace. It is one of her best recordings, one that Agnes, Lady Harty approved for release. Her powerful voice was difficult to capture.

If you've never heard the dusky tenor of Dublin-born Barton McGuckin, the first Otello in English at Covent Garden, here is your chance. He sings a ballad, one of his two published recordings. Of other British tenors on display, William Green provides the earliest recording (1901): "Be thou faithful until death" from Mendelssohn's St. Paul; Edward Lloyd in surging fashion delivers Gounod's "Lend me your aid" while Ben Davies serves as advocate for Maud Valerie White with her immortal song, "To Mary."

That delectable Dame, Emma Albani, is present with Handel's "Ombra mai fu," showing why the petite Canadian soprano was such a favourite of Queen Victoria. A colleague and fellow royal trouper, Sir Charles Santley, sings one of his classics, "To Anthea" by J. L. Hatton.

Of the low female voices, Australian-born Ada Crossley delightfully unfolds a "Four-leaf clover" by Willeby, her voice a rich, deep contralto in good company with those of Clara Butt and Belle Cole. Dame Clara sings an aria from Handel's Sosarme while Belle from Denver gives a heavenly "Entreat me not to leave thee" by Gounod, this a rarity too.

Amongst the international luminaries, Lillian Nordica offers "Die Bekehrte" by Max Stange, Patti her familiar "Voi che sapete" from Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro and Tetrazzini, an aria from Veracini's Rodelinda. Not quite in this class but fine in his way is David Bispham, one of a trio of Americans involved, with "O God have mercy upon me" from St Paul.

The rest, low-voiced men, include Sir George Henschel in old age with "Die beiden Grenadiere" by Schumann, while Glasgow native Andrew Black sings "O Ruddier than the Cherry" from Handel's Acis and Galatea. Last, but definitely not least - a firm personal favourite - is bass Robert Radford. From a 1918 recording, he rolls into "Roaming in the foaming billows" from Haydn's Creation. After debuting in 1904 at Covent Garden as Commendatore in Don Giovanni, Bob become a fixture in British opera, but he remained true to oratorio. The gleaming black gold he supplies is without peer.

Whoops! I almost forgot Robert Watkyn Mills. His greatest fan, the late Jim McPherson of Toronto, who died of emphysema on 15 November 2002, was one of the world's most knowledgeable musical historians. I still miss his cheery letters. Mills intones "Is not His word like a fire?" from Elijah.

This is not simply a display by great soloists. George Lloyd in 1997 reminisces about his father and the heyday of the Crystal Palace, although a few words about Mr. Lloyd would not have gone amiss for those of us not of British birth. As a fitting climax, five excerpts from Messiah are sung by the Handel Festival Choir, recorded "live" at the Crystal Palace in 1926 with Sir Henry J. Wood conducting.

The task of creating the Crystal Palace fell to Joseph Paxton, a designer of large greenhouses. From his fertile brain sprang a plan for a building he then erected in time for the Great Exhibition. Afterwards it was dismantled, moved, enlarged and re-opened at Sydenham in South London with magnificent fountains and landscaped gardens applying an idyllic touch. It served as home to a multitude of entertainment events until an evening in 1936 when the sun-dried wood within its structure fuelled a spectacular conflagration. The fountains proved inadequate, and four hundred tons of glass and 4 1/2 thousand tons of iron came tumbling down... a stirring Valhalla for Paxton's greenhouse.

The sound in every instance is exemplary, and if any digital jiggery-pokery is present, it is not intrusive, at least to these ears.

Not a conventional review this, perhaps, but it is a heartfelt response to a memorable CD. When a sequel appears, I will make haste to hear it.

A Celebratory Issue on the Occasion of the Millennium to mark The Centenary of Sir George Grove (1820-1900) and The Sesquicentennial of the Crystal Palace (1851- 1936) Symposium CD 1251, available from Symposium Records, 36 Paul's Lane, Overstrand, Norfolk, NR27 OPF; or online at their website. Price £10.00, plus £1.50 postage and packaging within the UK.

Published in For The Record, March 2004 

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