Thursday 13 May 2021

The Harmonious Echo: there are plenty of delights in this second dip into Sullivan's neglected song repertoire

The Harmonious Echo - Songs by Sir Arthur Sullivan; Mary Bevan, Kitty Whately, Ben Johnson, Ashley Riches, David Owen Norris; Chandos

The Harmonious Echo
- Songs by Sir Arthur Sullivan; Mary Bevan, Kitty Whately, Ben Johnson, Ashley Riches, David Owen Norris; Chandos

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 12 May 2021 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
There's a strong dose of sentimentality in David Owen Norris' second dip into the songs of Sir Arthur Sullivan, but plenty of delights too including some rattling good tunes

The Harmonious Echo is the second volume of pianist David Owen Norris' recordings for Chandos exploring the songs of Sir Arthur Sullivan. In this volume soprano Mary Bevan, mezzo-soprano Kitty Whately, tenor Ben Johnson and bass-baritone Ashley Riches perform 25 songs setting texts ranging from Shakespeare & Fletcher to Longfellow to Adelaide Procter to Kipling, and of course Gilbert. The best-known amongst the songs is Sullivan's setting of Procter, The Lost Chord.

The recital starts with a song which embodies Sullivan's style at its melodic best, King Henry's Song. This is from his 1877 incidental music for a production of Shakespeare and Fletcher's Henry VIII (at the Theatre Royal in Manchester), but the song could just as easily be from one of Sullivan's Savoy Opera. And this mood continues with The Lady of the Lake from an 1864 masque, Kenilworth. Over the Roof has a similar origin, it comes from The Sapphire Necklace, Sullivan's first opera, which was never produced.

But the melodic felicity should not blind us to Sullivan's remarkable emotional range. The songs here cover quite a wide range of ground, and certainly challenge the singers' technique, though Sullivan's fondness for the strophic form is not always idea. But not every song on the disc is from the workroom floor, most were written for a purpose. They were intended for the parlour and the salon, so that the wonderfully charming I heard the Nightingale was 'Sung by Mr. Sims Reeves at the Monday Popular Concerts' and Will He Come?, the first Adelaide Procter setting on the disc, was 'Composed expressly for Madame Sainton Dolby’. These were songs which were written for a new breed of professional singers to perform in concerts, in salons and in the hope and expectation that the songs would be popular and be published.

Will He Come? transformed Sullivan's finances, it was the first song that he published with Boosey & Hawkes and for the first time Sullivan did not sell the song outright but received a royalty, and he did very well with the song.

So these were intended to be popular. Sullivan is content to work within existing forms, to be charming, to express a wide range of emotions, but never to really push the envelope. This can be seen from his chosen poets, and frankly I find Adelaide Procter's verse rather too sentimental for my taste, so that whilst I can admire Sullivan's settings of her words, I don't really love them, though I understand that Procter often touched on remarkable social-justice issues in her writing. This is very much true of Thou art weary, where Procter addresses a malnourished child. But the refrain, set lyrically and not a little sentimentally by Sullivan, is the priceless phrase 'Sleep my darling, thou art weary, God is good, but life is dreary.'

This, for me, is the problem with Sullivan, his tendency to slip into the sentimentality which was common artistic parlance at the time. Yet at their best, the songs have a more than engaging quality so that whilst Bishop Heber's words for The moon in silent brightness are hardly deathless, Sullivan makes a striking song from them, once that would stand up to much that was being written in Europe.

Here I should mention the singers. That the songs might be a bit sentimental at times does not necessarily make them easy (any tenor trying to sing Sir Paolo Tosti's songs can confirm that). Here we have superb diction, engaging performances, a superb sense of line, a way of characterising each song individually, a real engagement with the material and no sense of the effort and skill which all this needs. In a word, these are near ideal performances and you do not need to make allowances.

The first disc ends with a striking pair of settings of Louisa M Gray (c1830-1911), the author of improving books for children. The songs, Looking Backward and Looking Forward, are further prime examples of they way that Sullivan's ability to create memorable melodic material should not disguise us to the real quality and invention of these as songs, rather than simply as tunes.

The combination of Sullivan and Longfellow would seem a marriage made in heaven, both enjoy traditional forms, have a tendency to sentimentality yet there is something to be found there too, and Sullivan's Longfellow setting Living Poems is a prime example.

With Other Days (setting Harry Graham's English version of words by Charles-Francois Panard) we seem to be back in the theatre, and this continues with Little Maid of Arcadee from Gilbert & Sullivan's first collaboration, Thespis. The Gilbert connection continues with The Distant Shore, which really ought to be in a Savoy Opera. But this and The love that loves me know are two of only three settings of Gilbert that do not have a theatrical link.

The penultimate song on the disc The Lost Chord which, in a finely subtle performance from Kitty Whately, comes over as a far more sophisticated piece than I realised. And then we finish with Sullivan's Kipling setting, The Absent-minded Beggar which is a remarkle essay in the Music Hall Style. It was premiered in 1899 at the Alhambra Music Hall in Leicester Square (where the Odeon cinema now is).

The songs on the disc cover a wide emotional and stylistic range, and also a wide date range, from 1864 to 1899. In many ways, in his songs Sullivan resembles his contemporary Camille Saint-Saens (born seven years before Sullivan). Both wrote lots of songs, though song-writing was not central to their art, both had melodic talent and were content to work with existing forms, rarely pushing the envelope yet with the sheer quality of the songs laying strong foundations for later composers.

The project is clearly dear to David Owen Norris' heart (and research interests). He has made films of 36 of Sullivan's songs, many unheard and unknown, with singers from the Royal Northern College of Music and which are available on his website, these films together with the two Chandos recordings cover all of Sir Arthur Sullivan's songs.    

If you don't mind the occasional dose of sentimentality then there is lots to enjoy on this disc. Mary Bevan, Kitty Whately, Ben Johnson and Ashley Riches clearly had great fun performing the music beautifuly partnered by David Owen Norris and this comes over. 

The Harmonious Echo: songs by Sir Arthur Sullivan (1842-1900)
Mary Bevan (soprano)
Kitty Whately (mezzo-soprano)
Ben Johnson (tenor)
Ashley Riches (bass-baritone)
David Owen Norris (piano)
Recorded at Potton Hall, Dunwich, Suffolk; 10 and 11 August (Kitty Whately, Ben Johnson, and Ashley Riches) & 30 November (Mary Bevan) 2020
CHANDOS CHAN 20239 2CDs [47:30, 46:03]

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