Gilbert and Sulliivan, or "G & S" as they are affectionately known in the trade, are in current musical consciousness joined at the hip. But it was not always so: Sir Arthur Sullivan (1842-1900) was a fine composer in his own right, his symphony a significant musical statement.
Here's a disc from 1993 originally on Marco Polo and now reissued on the cheaper Naxos label. It showcases Sullivan's versatility; he obviously has something of an operatic sweep in his writing. Repeated listening to the Savoy operas reveals tropes that come straight out of Verdi et al; the operettas do not exist in a vacuum. On this disc we have a demonstration of his versatility. We start with the Incidental Music to Macbeth:
You will not be the only one to detect the influence of Mendelssohn in teh choral passages (for the Chorus of Spirit s in the Air, think "Ye spotted snakes" from Midsummer Night's Dream); it segues straight into the atmosphere of Brahms' First Symphony before a final Chorus of Witches and Spirits emphatically takes us to the finishing line via one of those soaring Sullivan melodies that would not be out of place in one ofthe operettas.
Henry Irving's production of Macbeth opened at the Lyceum Theatre in December 1888, and its success was no doubt in part because of Sullivan's contribution. This is a fabulous performance, the RTÉ Chamber Choir excelling itself in lightness and sheer vocal command.
The incidental music to King Arthur in fact begins with two choruses:
King Arthur was a blank verse drama by Joseph Comyns Carr. The incidental music was edited by Sullivan's secretary, Wilfred Bendall, into the Suite we hear on this disc. The music has a grandeur that is wonderful (the very English-sounding chorus "The Chaunt (sic) of the Grail"), all held within Sullivan's own language. It's another side of this composer - a composer most listeners surely thought of as decidedly monolateral!.Listen to how Sullivan handles a fiuneral march (the final movement, "Funeral March and Final Chorus") - it is smooth, beautiful, solemn but not needlessly lachrymose, and leads into a lovely chorus. Penny and his forces lavish this music with love, and in so doing present the best possible case for it. Penny also seems to find the perfect tempo for every movement on the disc, allowing the music to flow naturally at all times.
The final offering returns to Shakespeare, now to The Merry Wives of Windsor.
There's more of that Mendelssohnian gossamer lightness in - unsurprisingly - the Dance of the Fairies (early on in the YouTube video above), delightfully renderd by the RTÉ orchestra. The mezzo Maggie McDonald performs the "Song," a gorgeous slice of pure Englishness before fluttering woodwind dialogue with strings in the penultimate movement offer another song, "As I am a true spirit, welcome!". McDonald has the perfect voice for this repertoire - strong, meaty, unflappable but capable of surprising tenderness.
For someone who was immersed in G & S in my formative teenage years as a player in pit bands (and therefore by the age of 18 roundly sick of it all!) I had not imagined I would enjoy this release anywhere near as much as I did. Sullivan's music is simply a delicious banquet of delight. This disc lavishes the music with love, and who could ask for more? A bargain.