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Various artists
Recorded 1928-1949 (Vol.1), 1926-1949 (Vol.2)
DUTTON CDLX 7025 (Vol.1) [77' 05"] CDLX 7029 (Vol.2) [76' 07"]
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Dutton Laboratories are performing a fine service in remastering 78rpm discs to a consistently high standard (they are not alone but they are among the leaders). Quality is superb, a minimum of (if any) hiss in this post-acoustic recording era, the standard of singing revelatory and a reminder of what and how it was done and what is often sadly lacking today. Diction is of the highest order, authenticity virtually non-existent. If composers from the past could collect copyright fees Handel would have made a pretty packet from these two discs, the rest featured to a far lesser degree are Bach, Haydn, Mendelssohn, Rossini, Elgar, Sullivan, Dvorak and Verdi (though only single examples of the last five). But that pretty well sums up the performance of practice in the field of oratorio in the 1930s and 1940s, Handel continuing to predominate as he had since the mid 19th century.

This reviewer is currently writing a history of the music agents Ibbs and Tillett, a firm who for the greater part of the 20th century provided choral societies and music clubs up and down the country with soloists for their song recitals or performances of oratorios. On a Friday night at Crewe station you might well have spotted Isobel Baillie, Muriel Brunskill, Heddle Nash and Norman Allin meeting up with Elsie Suddaby, Mary Jarred, Walter Widdop and Harold Williams as one quartet changed trains on their way to Liverpool or Manchester whilst the other one did so on their journey southbound to Birminhgham or Bristol for performances say of Elijah or Messiah. It might sound fanciful but it illustrates the quality around and their lifestyles as performers. On these CDs Baillie gets deserved prominence for her wonderful, bright singing, so does Heddle Nash for his heroic timbre, even if Maurice Miles proves a rather unhelpful accompanist by taking a tempo in 'Ev'ry valley' from Messiah, which Nash's florid singing cannot sustain. But all falls into place when the sublime sounds of Kathleen Ferrier creep in with Mendelssohn's Elijah. Her pianissimo will set the hairs on your neck a-tingling in the recitative 'Woe unto them', and that's before she even begins her divine singing of 'O rest in the Lord'.

Sargent's conducting and his choice of edition of Handel's Judas Maccabaeus show how long 19th century orchestrations lasted well into the second half of the 20th, but neither Baillie nor Nash has trouble riding the thick orchestral textures which result. Pronunciation will probably appear mannered to listeners today, some examples include words ending in '-ed' treated as a syllable, '-tion' becomes very '-shon', '-ious' is '-ioss' as in 'glorious' (listen out for some of these in the superb baritone of Keith Falkner's singing), 'r's are often 'rr's and also sounded at ended of words such as 'valour' or in the middle as in 'alarm'. Close miking tends to exaggerate all such details as well as emphasising the sheer physical effort involved in singing, but none of this detracts from any of the performances. Appoggiaturas and ornamentationare absent, the result rather bald compared to present day practice, portamento (some would describe it as scooping) abounds, continuo is often assigned to piano or harp rather than harpsichord.

Florence Austral (the only artist with choral as well as orchestral support) bridges oratorio and opera with her superb rendition of the 'Inflammatus' from Rossini's Stabat Mater under Barbirolli (ROH 1928), while her sense of line, breath control and top notes make compelling listening in 'The night is calm' from Sullivan's Golden Legend, a work in need of revival. But speaking of top notes (but in this next instance ones which, having soared, then float) Vol.1 ends with the renownedly memorable 'Sun goeth down' from Elgar's The Kingdom in an unforgettable rendition (in 1947) by, once again Baillie, who sang it with the authority of one who did so under the composer. In the same extract Sargent reminds us he is not an Elgarian to be forgotten.

Baillie also begins the second volume, this time accompanied by the organist Bertram Harrison at London's Kingsway Hall in October 1943 singing a flawless 'Be thou with me' and followed by the mezzo Marjorie Thomas in a warm account (1949) of 'Slumber beloved' from the Christmas Oratorio (complete with harp). After more from the excellent Heddle Nash, Baillie's great rival Elsie Suddaby is represented by a chirpily sung 'Rejoice' from Messiah (Handel continues to dominate this cd in nine of the fourteen tracks), whilst Gladys Ripley, like Ferrier doomed to an early death from cancer, excels in 'He shall feed his flock' from the same work. The Northern (Darlington)soprano Ada Alsop (another Ibbs and Tillett artist) did not have a long career, a hard fact to grasp judging by the purity of her sound in 'I know that my Redeemer liveth'. Between 1930 and 1949 there was a quantum leap in both sound quality and the standard of orchestral playing. While either might not have been so good in the particular choice of a 1930 recording of Norman Allin's singing of an aria from Samson, his performance is nevertheless both robust and the words crystal clear. Curiously this is billed on the box's contents list as accompanied by W T Best at the piano, whereas the version heard is orchestral and therefore uncredited.

One assumes that Schwarzkopf earns a place among 'Stars of English Oratorio' in view of her singing in English (more Handel in the shape of 'Sweet bird' from L'Allegro ed il Penseroso) accompanied by Josef Krips and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. It is interesting for being early (1946) Schwarzkopf and for the opportunity to compare her style with those of Baillie, Suddaby and Alsop. She sings an accomplished duo with the bird-flute, but the tempo is rather laboured (on the whole tempi are not so vastly different on both discs from what we are used to today, leaving aside the Norringtons, Gardiners and Hogwoods of this world). The final bars remain in the memory for sheer power and intensity. For a smooth legato line and controlled placement of top notes you cannot do better than listen to Heddle Nash once again, this time in a lusciously sensual account of 'Love in her eyes' from Acis and Galatea. At the top his uniquely identifiable voice often threatens to slip into falsetto, but never quite does so in a way which is always captivating.

Peter Dawson, whose staggering recording career of fifty years spanned acoustic, electric, LP mono and stereo records, is another model of diction in a sparkling 1927 account (with plenty of 'rr's) in 'O ruddier than the cherry' despite rather rough and ready orchestral accompaniment in which a distant piccolo has rather a good time of it. A year earlier and the imposing Robert Radford, with a voice of immense power and dark quality akin to the Russian Chaliapin, excels on and below the stave but there are signs of strain both in controlling descending scales and sustaining Ds above the stave, but it's worth it for his D two octaves lower at the end of the recitative to depict the crawling worm, which, though not written, all those basses who can, go down to. As with the Austral excerpt in the first volume, there's a quasi-operatic extract from the choral repertoire, in this case the little-known but Italianate and virile sounding tenor John McHugh in the 'Ingemisco' from Verdi's Requiem. Like a bookend, Isobel Baillie who began with Bach now concludes the cd with an unusual choice, an aria from Dvorak's The Spectre's Bride, hauntingly beautiful to the last.

For those interested in the rich heritage of British oratorio singing, and even more so for those who know nothing about it yet, these revelatory discs are vital to own.

Christopher Fifield



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