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Sir Arthur SULLIVAN (1842-1900)
L’Île enchantée, ballet (1864) [48:23]
Thespis, ballet (1871) [9:15]
RTÉ Concert Orchestra/Andrew Penny
rec. 13-16 April 1992, National Concert Hall, Dublin, Ireland
NAXOS 8.555180 [57:50]

This originally appeared as one of a Marco Polo series of Sullivan orchestral recordings by Andrew Penny [8.223460], now appearing as Naxos re-releases. Originally sold in the early 1990s at £13.50 outside Ireland, sales uptake was somewhat restricted when compared against the usual £5 Naxos price of the time. This new general release is more affordable and likely to interest many more collectors of British Victorian music.

Twenty years ago, when this recording first appeared, little had been written about or heard of Sullivan’s ballet music apart from a booklet by Selwyn Tillett, published by the Sir Arthur Sullivan Society and now out of print. L’Île enchantée was written for the Italian Opera of Covent Garden in May, 1864 as an after-piece for La Sonnambula. Their resident musical director, Michael Costa, had previously engaged Sullivan as organist at the house. At the age of 22, Sullivan was in a prime position to be offered such a commission and he rose to the occasion. Much of the ballet music would be recycled for Victoria and Merrie England, a ballet-pageant staged 33 years later at London’s Alhambra Theatre. (This music appeared as another Marco Polo recording by Andrew Penny [8.223677] and is likely to be considered by Naxos for re-release in this new format.) Such was its success at the Alhambra, that the ballet ran for six months and royalty attended 19 of the performances.

L’Île enchantée opens with sleeping nymphs on a seashore, who are awoken by satyrs. A storm rises and washes a shipwrecked sailor to the shore (the fairies, scared by the storm, have by now disappeared). The lonely sailor finds himself on an island of mythical creatures. He becomes enchanted by the appearance of the Fairy Queen, who leads him to her fairy glen to meet the nymphs. Eventually, the Queen and sailor fall in love, and they finally kiss. This act causes the Queen to become mortal, and she offers him her hand.

Of the music, one item, ‘The Gallop’, was recycled for the Thespis ballet music with identical orchestration, yet for completeness it is repeated on this disc. A Delibean ‘Dance of the Nymphs’ is quite captivating. The languid and lilting ‘Pas de Deux’ is both charming and memorable. Sullivan’s broody storm is an elegant piece of writing and equals his Haddon Hall tempest for atmosphere and effectiveness.

Thespis was the first of Gilbert & Sullivan’s operatic collaborations, and although the libretto exists, the music was lost, apart from this ballet sequence of five numbers, one song, and a chorus (later transferred to The Pirates of Penzance). Thespis opened as a Christmas piece of 1864 which out-ran many of the London’s pantomimes that winter, continuing into the spring and achieving 64 performances. It was staged at John Hollingshead’s Gaiety Theatre.

The energetic opening has a fine and stirring melody which runs into an Andante with a theme of style similar to the woodwind numbers found in L’Île enchantée. An atmospheric ‘George and the Dragon’ sequence was clearly a tableau and does not relate to the general plot of the operetta. It was written to accompany stage action, before lightening up in mood to flow into the bright finale Gallop.

Notes (in English) focus on the synopsis and background detail to explain the interesting story about how the music was recovered by Roderick Spencer and Selwyn Tillett. The full scores had been lost in Sullivan’s time, which may have been during a small Covent Garden fire when much of their library music was destroyed. Fortunately, a set of band parts were discovered and it was from those that a new full score could be generated.

The first use of the fresh Thespis music was as a filler for John Pryce-Jones’ Iolanthe on TER (1991) where the recording is sprightly and as good as Andrew Penny’s reading, yet recorded with a slightly recessed orchestra and more reverberation. With Penny, some of the numbers are more leisurely paced to tease out more Romanticism. Penny’s reading of the Andante is particularly graceful and uses nicely paced crescendi. He conducts with zeal and shows he has a strong affinity with this material. The RTÉ Concert Orchestra responds admirably, with all sections a delight to listen to in the warm acoustics of Dublin’s National Concert Hall.

This release makes me think there must be more Marco Polo recordings that contain interesting and previously unknown corners of repertoire. I notice that the timing of this disc is 40 seconds longer than the Marco Polo disc. Although there has been no change to the master, the difference in time is accounted for by the alteration in the track spacers. 

Raymond J Walker

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