Coleridge-Taylor said that he was first attracted to Hiawatha by the funny words. They, and the funny rhythms—occasionally too the funny lines such as '''Kaw', they said, 'we don't believe it'''—are generally our own first memories, and quite often the only ones. That is surely unjust to the poem. As to the music, this latest encounter (the first for a good many years) leaves me less certain. There is no problem about understanding why it should have been so popular with choral societies and their audiences: 'a good sing', not difficult but providing plenty for the choir to do (on their feet most of the time, and no boring da capo arias to sit through), a distinctive flavour making it a special experience, strong melodic phrases, some drama and eventually, with Hiawatha's Farewell, an awareness of deeper emotion, even a gulp or two. Yet for all its mastery and conviction, the score rarely takes us beyond the world of easy entertainment. Probably best when least 'ethnic' (in intention), it quite touchingly retains its freshness and sense of adventure, yet the adventure seems always to stop short of real exploration.
The performance here is both spirited and sensitive. The chorus, blessed with real tenors, produce good, full-bodied tone, and the orchestral work is admirable throughout. Helen Field sings with bright clarity, the very voice of the Laughing Waters. Arthur Davies, so much our best lyric tenor for years, brings all his customary beauty of timbre, evenness of production and care for detail to the famous love-song, but I can't help wishing for a little more flame, something more personal, in short a little touch of Tudor Davies. Bryn Terfel, splendid in his dramatic strength and sharpness of focus, confirms that this is an excellent recording voice and leads us to hope for lots more from him (I'd like Elijah, for a start).
In all, the recording provides a new generation with a worthy and welcome introduction to this once so very familiar work. Perhaps, who knows, some enterprising impresario may even think it worthwhile to revive the costumed productions of T. C. Fairbairn which, as Kenneth Alwyn recalls in his notes, used in the interwar years to bring the war-painted, befeathered tribes of choristers from Wapping, Tooting, Penge and Cheam up for the annual event at the Royal Albert Hall in London under Great Chief Sargent.'