Friday, February 26, 2010

Sir Arthur Sullivan's Glorious "The Golden Legend"

I spent a wonderful morning listening to the 2001 Hyperion recording of Sir Arthur Sullivan’s magnificent cantata “The Golden Legend, with Janice Watson, Jean Rigby, Mark Wilde, Jeffrey Black with the New London Orchestra and The London Chorus led by Ronald Corp. I‘ve heard excerpts before, but this was my first hearing of the entire score in one sitting, and I did something I don’t with great frequency do: listened to it all over again.

“The Golden Legend” was so highly regarded during Sullivan’s lifetime, that it became one of the most performed choral works, surpassing most other favorites of the time, including “Elijah” with only Handel’s ubiquitous “Messiah” surpassing it. That, like so many performance worthy works, it has fallen forgotten by the wayside is, in my estimation, a tragedy. Of course many - most of whom will never hear the piece, would love nothing more than dismiss the work unheard, and nothing more than an asterisk to the dustbins of Victorian kitsch.” They’d be wrong to do so, in my opinion as the work is so imminently enjoyable, brimming - start-to-finish - with truly top drawer Sullivan; gloriously atmospheric music bearing the influences of Wagner, Mendelssohn, Berlioz and Liszt (with whom Sullivan had worked prior to his composition of the piece).

Following the premiere, Gilbert wrote his former partner to congratulate him on the success of “the biggest thing you’ve ever done.” Many performances and two years later there was a performance held at the Royal Albert Hall by command of Queen Victoria, who upon the work’s conclusion sent for Sir Arthur to offer her praise, and offer a request, to write a “grand opera,” planting the seed for the recently much discussed “Ivanhoe.”

The critical reception for “The Golden Legend,” was nothing short of sensational, with music critics outdoing each other with praise for the work both in its music and sense of drama. Like many things Victorian, more critical (and in my opinion less accurate) 20th century analyses of Sir Arthur’s cantata found it wanting, overly melodramatic, sentimental and overreaching. I’ve actually heard the piece called “quaint,“ and “naïve” which, in my opinion, is about as far away from the truth as possible. The most damning condemnations informing us that our “modern sensibilities“ (e.g., higher degree of sophistication) the lessening role of religion in modern life, etc. render the work little more than a curiosity of a bygone era. Poppycock, I say. Sir Arthur did not write, as does no composer, for audiences of the future but rather for those in his own time.

When this recording was issued critics who wrote in praise of the music essentially said the work deserved it’s neglect because of the sappiness of the story told by Longfellow’s poem from which the libretto is culled (calling certain portions glutinous in its sentiment. Again, I simply don’t understand the reasoning here as such can be said of many great operas and oratorios who sweep us away with the grandeur and power of the music which, in my opinion, far (FAR!) outweigh any negligible qualities of the text.

Clocking in at just under 100 minutes, the six scenes of Sullivan’s cantata have a beautiful (if necessarily episodic) flow and would make a wonderful afternoon at a concert hall - or cathedral.

There are moments of such thrilling musical drama, such as the conclusion of scene iv. Here, Lucifer, disguised as Angelo, a doctor/monk, leads the heroine (Elsie) away to sacrifice, Prince Henry, realizing things have gone very, very wrong, cries out “Angelo! Angelo! Murderer” the thunderous chorus responding in shouts of “Murderer! Murderer!”with chorus, soloists and orchestra in full cry. This intense surging of this scene alone, for me, makes “The Golden Legend” worthy of revival.

With its vivid storm music, the Prologue instantly recalls “Die Fliegende Höllander” and while mention seems often to be made of the opening with quiet bells summoning images of “Suor Angelica” - so can the same be said of anything with quiet bells.

The final scene leading to the redemption and marriage of Prince Henry to Elsie provides the couple with a beautiful duet, followed by a choral finale of great sweep and grandeur. If one enjoys British choral music (as you should!) I can’t think of a more fitting ending to this beautiful “Legend.”

There are many such moments throughout the piece as Sullivan provides his soloists with gloriously melodic arias and scenes, weaves aural tapestries of music that foreshadows by decades music yet to be written by Elgar, Finzi, Vaughn Williams and the other giants that followed him.

As Elsie, Janice Watson is wonderful throughout her music capturing a keen sense of the period without ever dipping into the waters of cheap sentimentality too often bridged in this sort of thing.

Jean Rigby is always a treasure to hear and no less so than as Ursula in this recording and her handling of her prayer scene in scene five grows in lyrical intensity throughout before its gentle finish.

Prince Henry is taken by Mark Wilde who offers an attractive, if not quite the heroic timbre, I’d have preferred for the role. But he sings with an earnestness and never betrays the hero’s sensibilities and partners beautifully with his Elsie.

Jeffrey Black offers a Lucifer of variable quality, sometimes sounding properly sinister, other times falling a bit flat and wooly of tone. He does seem to rise to the occasion at most of the big moments, but overall I find his performance not as satisfying as his costars.

Ronald Corp conducts the New London Orchestra and The London Chorus as if he truly believes in the piece, never rushing and properly pacing the numbers to achieve their greatest possible effect on the listener. It worked for me.

While I understand and appreciate the necessity of moving on with an eye toward the future, it’s a pity it’s too frequently done while forgetting the past. As at least one wise person has stated, “without “The Golden Legend” we would never have gotten Elgar’s “The Dream of Gerontius.” There is, for me, enough praise in that statement to make Sullivan’s neglected masterpiece worth having and hearing.

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