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CD Review

Arthur Sullivan

Orchestral Works

  • Symphony in E "Irish"
  • Imperial March
  • Victoria and Merrie England Ballet Suite #1
  • Overture in C (In Memoriam)
BBC Concert Orchestra/Oawin Arwel Hughes
CPO 999171-2 72:25
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Not quite superfluous.

Today, we know Arthur Seymour Sullivan (his initials embarrassed him) almost exclusively as William Gilbert's musical partner - the co-creator of the Savoy operas, a genre practically sui generis which managed to outlast by quite a bit its Offenbachian model. The partnership was fractious to the point of legend, and both men wrote, away from one another, great successes in their own day. Gilbert's only lasting non-collaborative piece is the Bab Ballads - with the works of Carroll and Lear, a pillar of Victorian nonsense. Sullivan scored lasting, though minor, sentimental successes with certain hymns and, of course, with that parlor favorite, "The Lost Chord." Up until roughly forty years ago, the musical public forgot Sullivan's eminence as the greatest British composer of his day. This might sound like the answer to the question of the best haute cuisine in Mudville, until we realize that a music critic as acute as George Bernard Shaw admired Sullivan's work tremendously and with a clear eye. At any rate, about forty to sixty years ago, performers began to explore the obscure corners of Sullivan's catalogue and found music well worth reviving.

Sullivan studied in Leipzig, at the conservatory first headed by Mendelssohn (although Mendelssohn had died by the time Sullivan got there), and he learned Mendelssohn's style. Mendelssohn's star has sunk pretty low these days - why, I don't really know, since I love Mendelssohn's work - and the idiom has sunk with it. I'm convinced people don't know Mendelssohn's music, beyond the usual pieces, nearly at all well enough to be turned off by it. I should say that Mendelssohn is a greater composer by far than Sullivan. Sullivan writes marvelous tunes, beautifully harmonized and orchestrated. But he has a relatively loose grip on large form. He certainly doesn't take you for a ride like Brahms or Mendelssohn at his best, but it's good enough. He can put together a persuasive large piece. The Symphony is probably his most successful large work. In case you're wondering, I don't care for the cello concerto, which had a curious history. The only manuscript went up in a fire, and for a long time, we got instead Charles Mackerras's recollections of the piece, which (from recently-discovered parts) turn out to have been supernaturally close. At any rate, the result lacks the professionalism, at least, of Sullivan's other orchestral work and doesn't convince me. I love the Symphony, however - to me the best British symphony before the Elgar First, which, of course, blows the Sullivan away. Nevertheless, if you have a taste for Mendelssohn, Sullivan's "Irish" Symphony should appeal to you. It moves, propelled by ingenious rhythms and bright tunes.

The late Imperial March is almost a potboiler, written for Queen Victoria's opening of the Imperial Institute in London. Those who know Sullivan's Yeomen of the Guard /Ivanhoe manner will recognize the style of the march as well as Sullivan's gradual expansion of his influences to include the harmonies of early Wagner. The scoring is particularly sumptuous. Sullivan was given a 98-piece orchestra to conduct at the première, and he makes good use of it. It's not all jingoistic swagger. There are some lovely, expansive lyrical passages as well, but Sullivan doesn't let the audience forget that it has come to celebrate Empire. The work ends in stentorian brass.

In Memoriam, inspired by the death of Sullivan's father, is, like the Symphony, another early work. Again, Mendelssohn is the chief influence. There's no question that Sullivan wanted to write an "important" piece. Relative to the rest of Sullivan's output, it is important, and it carries the same virtues as the Symphony: moving along nifty rhythms and a sweet melodic line. However, it does lack grandeur, despite a finale in which the composer throws in an organ to beef things up. It rises to the level of, say, Mendelssohn's Fingal's Cave, but not Elijah, and (as you don't with Fingal's Cave) one comes across a bit of padding here and there, serving little purpose other than to change key.

Sullivan wrote mainly for the theater, for the simple reason that it paid and, after a certain point, paid very well. He produced not only popular operettas, but incidental music to plays and (according to the custom of the time) interpolations into other operas as well. Although Sullivan wrote the ballet Victoria and Merrie England for Victoria's Diamond Jubilee, he fully expected - and got - a popular theatrical run. Nevertheless, the score remained unpublished, and, as far as I know, this is the first recording of any music from the work. The band performs three numbers from over 100 pages of score, and I hope someone sees fit to record the thing entire, since the liner notes hint at still-buried treasure, including a finale that contrapuntally weaves together folk songs from England, Scotland, and Ireland. Sullivan did re-use certain early material which had remained unperformed, including stuff from an early opera The Sapphire Necklace. We get here a lovely, long-breathing nocturne, a tripping allegretto reminiscent of many entrances of the ladies' chorus in the Savoy operas, and a vigorous allegro not out of place among the men's chorus in Pinafore or Pirates.

The problem with the release is that, excepting the snippets from the ballet, every one of these works has had a better recording from the gang at EMI. They are all available in a huge 16-CD set (you can get it for slightly over $100 at Arkivmusic and Amazon), which includes the Sargent Glyndebourne recordings of the Savoy operas, the hapless cello concerto, and incidental music for Shakespeare plays. That, to me, is the edition to get. Hughes's band plays a bit ragged, and In Memoriam drags. Hughes does best with Victoria and Merrie England, but of course I have nothing to compare with it. The sound is fine.

Copyright © 2004, Steve Schwartz