Sunday 23 December 2018

Illuminating a neglected work: John Andrews & the BBC Concert Orchestra revive Sir Arthur Sullivan's sacred oratorio, 'The Light of the World'

Arthur Sullivan - The Light of the World
Sir Arthur Sullivan The Light of the World; Natalya Romaniw, Eleanor Dennis, Kitty Whately, Robert Murray, Ben McAteer, Neal Davies, BBC Concert Orchestra, John Andrews; Dutton Epoch
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 21 December 2018 
Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)
Sullivan's strangely neglected early oratorio makes a strong impact in this fine new recording

Handel's Messiah, which takes us from Christ's birth through to his Resurrection was intended as a Lenten/Easter work but has become wedded to the Christmas period. So it seems apt that today we have Sir Arthur Sullivan's very different take on the same story, in his oratorio The Light of the World

Listening to Sullivan's The Light of the World today, it is difficult to believe that there was anything controversial about it. But Victorian England had an odd relationship with religion and any hint of a dramatic depiction of the Biblical was frowned upon. Handel's oratorios, Biblical dramas intended for the theatre, were taken firmly into the church and the concert hall. Biblical operas were banned, so the young Clara Butt never did sing the role of Dalila in Saint-Saens' Samson et Dalila despite the composer wanting her to.

It took a German, Felix Mendelssohn, to revitalise the oratorio tradition in England with Elijah which premiered at the Birmingham Festival in 1846. And it is the spirits of Mendelssohn and Bach which hung over English composers when writing oratorios in the 19th century.

The Light of the World was written in 1873 for the Birmingham Festival, and when writing the work Sullivan took an innovative approach, yet one which Mendelssohn had used in Elijah. There is no narrator, the characters speak directly to the audience. This takes the oratorio back to something closer to Handel's great sacred dramas such as Belshazzar. Yet for The Light of the World, it meant the bold step putting Jesus directly on stage. For the first time an English audience heard Jesus addressing them directly, none of the distancing he said/she said familiar from the Passions. Yes, there are fudges, the role is simply labelled solo baritone. And the figure is very much Jesus the man rather than Christ the Saviour.

The preface to the score explains that the intention was no to convey the spiritual idea of the Saviour as in Messiah or to recount the sufferings of Christ, as in the 'Passionsmusik' but to set forth the Human aspect of the Life of Our Lord on earth.

It is puzzling that Sullivan's The Light of the World has been so ignored in the 20th and 21st centuries, thankfully that will be rectified with this fine new recording from John Andrews and the BBC Concert Orchestra on Dutton Epoch, with Natalya Romaniw (Mary, the Mother of Jesus), Eleanor Dennis (Mary Magdelene/Martha), Kitty Whately (An Angel), Robert Murray (A Disciple/Nicodemus), Ben McAteer (Jesus), Neal Davies (A Ruler/A Pharisee/A Shepherd), the BBC Symphony Chorus, and the Kinder Children's Choirs of the  High Peak.

Mendelssohn is a clear influence and there are whole sections of the piece where my listening notes constantly refer to Mendelssohn's Elijah. But there is an engaging freshness and directness to Sullivan's writing. The Light of the World lacks the vein of pious sentimentality which fatally ran through Victorian oratorio.

Sullivan: The Light of the World - Robert Murray, Neal Davies, John Andrews, Kitty Whately, Eleanor Dennis, Natalya Romaniw, Ben McAteer, Gavin Carr
Sullivan: The Light of the World - Robert Murray, Neal Davies, John Andrews, Kitty Whately, Eleanor Dennis,
Natalya Romaniw, Ben McAteer, Gavin Carr
Sullivan is not afraid to talk directly to the listener, whether it is Jesus's long speech (taken from Matthew XXV. 31) at the opening of part two or one of the large-scale choruses.
And his approach builds on Mendelssohn's lightly operatic style so some scenes are quasi-operatic. But Sullivan's vocal writing takes great care of the words; part of the directness of the piece comes from the relative simplicity of Sullivan's vocal writing. Just as with the Savoy Opera, Sullivan was able to give primacy to Gilbert's words whilst keeping musical interest, so here primacy is given to the Biblical words.  But Sullivan's treatment of soloists and chorus is often operatic, with the chorus creating real dramatic characters rather than simply declaiming. Much of the choral writing is highly innovative and dramatically engaging.

And the piece is never lacking in instrumental interest, because of Sullivan's striking and often colourful orchestrations. Jesus is haloed with an 'inner orchestra' using cor anglais, clarinet, bass clarinet, bassoon, contrabassoon and divided lower strings, and the full orchestra has a large role to play with lots of orchestral introductions and interludes.

The text selection was made by Sullivan and his friend George Grove. It divides the story into two parts, the first provides scenes from Jesus's mission, Bethlehem (his birth), Nazareth (his preaching), Lazarus (his healing miracles), and The Way to Jerusalem (the triumphal entry into Jerusalem). The second part concentrates on events in Jerusalem but the actual passion narrative is referred to rather than described (another example of Sullivan's reticence when it came to breaking Victorian taboos), and the final scene takes place in the Sepulchre the morning after the Crucifixion with Mary Magdelene, an Angel and a disciple.

The way Sullivan approached the piece did not seem to have an effect on his contemporaries and his daring in presenting Jesus as a dramatic character was not followed up, Stainer's Crucifixion of 1887 remains firmly wedded to the passion narrative/narrator structure. And Sullivan's work was perhaps more appreciated by Continental musicians; Gounod, who was living in London at the time, heard the work and appreciated it. And certainly, Liszt's approach to oratorio as defined in St Elizabeth and Christus can be seen to have various parallels in Sullivan's work, including the use of the orchestra.

But critics were quick to point out that such a 'worldly' man as Liszt could only be insincere if writing a religious work, and this attitude seemed to be applied to Sullivan too. There was a vein of disapproval of the work, and it did not help that Sullivan ended not with Good Friday (as Stainer did), but with Easter Sunday and the Resurrection which smacked of High Church Anglicanism, if not outright Catholicism (Elgar's Dream of Gerontius would have similar problems in the early 20th century).

Another problem with the work is its length and the fact that the sheer directness puts a great onus on the soloists, who need to be highly expressive. It is easy to imagine a bad performance of the piece, the music does not play itself, and it would only need a couple of bad performances to damn the piece entirely.

On this disc, John Andrews proves himself a powerful and sympathetic advocate for the piece and has clearly drawn powerful, committed and fully engaged from all his performers. You can listen to the piece without recourse to the printed text, words are admirably clear and sung by everyone as if they mean them as if the story really means something to them personally. Ben McAteer makes a dignified and strong Jesus, always engaging by the sheer strength of his utterance. The other soloists pop up at various points, with Natalya Romaniw as a passionate Virgin Mary in Sullivan's version of the Magnificat, Eleanor Dennis as both Martha and Mary to vivid dramatic effect, Kitty Whately as a dignified Angel whose final solo at the Sepulchre makes a profoundly moving effect, Robert Murray who clearly channels his experience in Messiah and makes the most of his final Mendelssohnian solo, and Neal Davies who pops up to great dramatic effect in a number of roles.

The choruses have an equally important part to play, and one of the glories of this recording is the fine, choral sound from the dramatic moments to the wonderfully expansive final scene of Part One when Jesus is welcomed into Jerusalem.

Sullivan's orchestral writing, whilst never vulgar is rarely discreet, you can hear some vivid orchestral colours complementing the vocal and choral writing. Andrews draws some fine playing from the BBC Concert Orchestra and they sound as committed to the work's narrative as the singers.

The work was performed in a new performing edition created by Robin Gordon-Powell for The Amber Ring.

The Light of the World is perhaps a work that is easily overlooked, on first listen it does not come out and grab you, yet there is much of interest in the piece and repeated listening has made me come to appreciate it rather more. If Elgar's The Apostles and The Kingdom seem to come out of nowhere, then Sullivan's The Light of the World shows that there was far more to 19th century English oratorio than Bennett's The Woman of Samaria, Macfarren's The Resurrection and Stainer's Crucifixion.

Sir Arthur Sullivan (1842-1900) - The Light of the World (1873)
Natalya Romaniw (soprano)
Eleanor Dennis (soprano)
Kitty Whately (mezzo-soprano)
Robert Murray (tenor)
Ben McAteer (baritone)
Neal Davies (bass)
BBC Symphony Chorus
Kinder Children's Choirs
BBC Concert Orchestra
John Andrews (conductor)
Recorded at the Watford Colosseum, 21-25 April 2017

Available from Amazon.

Elsewhere on this blog:
  • Seasonal touches: The Tallis Scholas & Peter Phillips at St John's Smith Square's Christmas Festival (★★★★) - concert review
  • The Dead City: Robert Carsen's production of Korngold's Die tote Stadt at the Komische Oper, Berlin  (★★★★) - Opera review
  • Cause for Celebration: Roxanna Panufnik on the Last Night of the Proms & commemorating the Centenary of Polish Independence - interview
  • The Sixteen at Christmas - The Little Child  at Cadogan Hall (★★★★) - concert review
  • A mash up of Gilbert & Sullivan and the Carry On films: Straus' The Pearls of Cleopatra at the Komische Oper, Berlin  (★★★★★) - opera review
  • Messiah in Berlin: Handel's oratorio staged in the Philharmonie (★★★★★) - music theatre review
  • A triumphal Messiah: Andrew Arthur and the Hanover Band at Kings Place  (★★★★★) - concert review
  • Towards the Global Jukebox - feature article
  • Echoes of Parsifal: songs and piano music by Robin Holloway on Delphian (★★★½) - CD review
  • Clarinettist dedications: Roeland Hendrikx in three contrasting concertos for clarinet (★★★½)  - CD review
  • Carols and more: Our annual Christmas disc round-up - CD review
  • Reviving Mozart in Wales & family connections in Milton Keynes: I chat to conductor Damian Iorio - my interview
  • Chocolate covered fairy-tale: Hänsel und Gretel at Covent Garden (★★★½) - opera review
  • Joyous discovery: Alessandro Scarlatti's Messa per il Santissimo Natale (★★★★)  - concert review
  • Home

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