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Sir Arthur SULLIVAN (1842-1900)
The Light of the World (1873)
Natalya Romaniw (soprano) – Mary, the Mother of Jesus
Eleanor Dennis (soprano) – Mary Magdalene/ Martha
Kitty Whately (contralto) – An Angel
Robert Murray (tenor) – A Disciple/Nicodemus
Ben McAteer (baritone) – Jesus
Neal Davies (bass) – A Ruler/A Pharisee/A Shepherd
BBC Concert Orchestra / John Andrews
Kinder Children’s Choir
BBC Symphony Chorus
rec. 2017, Watford Colosseum
DUTTON EPOCH 2CDLX7356 SACD [2 discs: 146.19]

This issue, a world premiere on disc, is an invaluable addition to the recorded repertoire of British music. Not simply as an exercise in musical archaeology but also for the intrinsic merits of this extraordinary score, once very popular, and a particular favourite of Dame Clara Butt.

There is a tendency to think of English composers of the 19th Century as ‘sub-Mendelssohnian’, but this oratorio to scriptural texts demonstrates originality of expression, notably in dotted rhythms and bare octaves, but also in allusions to early traditions, such as Gregorian chant, as well as the music of Gibbons. In a few places, there is a looking-forward to Mahler. The overwhelming sense, however, is the warmth of the approach.

This is consistent with Sullivan’s ‘Argument’, published with the vocal score, in 1873, the year of the oratorio’s first publication: “In this oratorio the intention has not been to convey the spiritual idea of the Saviour as in the Messiah, or to recount the sufferings of Christ, as in the “Passionmusik”, but to set forth the Human aspect of the Life of Our Lord on earth, exemplifying it by some of the actual incidents in His career, which bear specially upon His attributes of Preacher, Healer and Prophet.”

The focus, then, is on Christ as incarnated, which is a focus different from that in the Messiah. The Crucifixion is implicit. The Light of the World has Jesus speaking to us directly – something which few composers had been willing to entertain. Over-spiritualised Christian faith struggles with the concept of what God becoming man entailed. (I recall very well a sniffy complaint about blasphemy when I wrote that Jesus would have had to cut his toenails…). Sullivan does not ignore the salvific aspect, especially in the gripping final choruses.

The figure of Jesus is set apart not only by voice – the admirable baritone of Ben McAteer – but by a special sound world. When Jesus utters directly, he is accompanied by an inner orchestra of cor anglais (not otherwise used), clarinet, bass clarinet, bassoon, contra-bassoon and divided violas and cellos.

An extraordinary feature of Sullivan’s genius is the sensitivity of word-setting to the emotional as well as the religious meanings of given phrases. At times, he is fully prepared to unsettle as well as to comfort. Such sensitivity requires singers who attend to careful articulation, these days not always a given. The admirable BBC Chorus and soloists are all to be congratulated for the attention to this detail, though I confess occasional irritation at the habit of British oratorio vowels: ‘He shall deleever heem’ etc.

John Andrew’s handling of the long score is admirable. As well as bringing out the incidental individual beauties, he has a profound sense of the architecture of the whole.

Kudos also for the excellent Dutton engineers: sound quality is outstanding, whether heard in SACD or stereo. The combination of clarity and warmth captures Sullivan’s intentions perfectly. Production values are always admirable from Dutton. The notes are splendid, including an invaluable Theological Note from Ian Bradley, author of Lost Chords and Christian Soldiers: The Sacred Music of Arthur Sullivan (SCM). Both Sullivan’s Argument and the full libretto are included, as well as other material.

Whether this ground-breaking recording will encourage further public performances will be interesting to see. The length and number of soloists might be a deterrent, but this music touches greatness and deserves more than silence.

Michael Wilkinson


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