SULLIVAN Macbeth. The Tempest. Marmion Overture
A premiere recording of a major orchestral work by Arthur Sullivan in the year 2016? Incredibly, this generously filled set contains three. Earlier recordings of Marmion have been heavily cut, and only excerpts from the incidental music to The Tempest and Sullivan’s 1888 incidental music to Macbeth have ever been committed to disc – until now.
The Tempest is probably the most familiar, and it’s a superb achievement. Sullivan composed it in Leipzig at the age of 19, and his debt to Mendelssohn is so obvious as to be hardly worth remarking upon. What really is extraordinary is the freshness and poetry with which Sullivan makes that language his own. In his melodic inspiration and sense of atmosphere, Sullivan here shows himself easily the equal of all but the greatest of his continental contemporaries.
The music for Macbeth is just as inspired: the musical witchery is suitably eerie but Sullivan evokes humour as well as darkness, and even the passages of underscoring contain real musical substance, with some fantastic writing for harp. The chivalrous sweep of the Marmion Overture, meanwhile, holds up well against (say) Elgar’s Froissart.
The BBC Concert Orchestra play with warmth and style, the BBC Singers go at it with spirit and Mary Bevan makes an enchanting Ariel. John Andrews does an excellent job of integrating the orchestra with Simon Callow’s spoken chunks of Shakespeare. Unfortunately, in Macbeth Callow goes way over the top, chewing the imaginary scenery and adopting a series of increasingly ludicrous mock-Scottish accents: the vocal equivalent of a ‘See You Jimmy’ hat. For me, at least, that made repeated listening unbearable. A real pity on a release as important as this.