Sullivan’s songs, like so much of his music away from his collaboration with Gilbert, have largely vanished into obscurity, so this excellent set from pianist, composer and presenter David Owen Norris and three fine young British singers offers a much-needed reappraisal. Though it avoids a chronological approach in favour of groupings largely by writer, it covers Sullivan’s entire career, from his 1855 schoolboy effort ‘O Israel’ to ‘Tears, idle tears’, written shortly before his death in 1900.
Sullivan took song composition seriously after his exposure to Lieder during his Leipzig years, and Schubert is a point of reference and departure throughout. His influence can be felt in the shaping of vocal lines and accompaniments, and, most importantly, in The Window, or The Songs of the Wrens, a song-cycle modelled on Die schöne Müllerin for which Tennyson provided the text. Sullivan’s choice of poetry, not all of it in English, could be variable, but his natural gifts as a melodist compel admiration even in songs that veer towards a now unfashionable sentimentality, such as his settings of Lionel H Lewin, a close friend, whose verses are apt to cloy.
Norris’s singers reflect the directness of the music with a sincerity in performance that proves persuasive throughout. The vocal challenges are greater than some might suppose. Ben Johnson is occasionally pushed in his upper registers, while Ashley Riches sometimes reveals a vibrato when his voice is under pressure. Both of them, however, can also be utterly beguiling. Johnson sings The Window with discreet passion, brings wit and regret to ‘O swallow, swallow’ and plenty of swagger to his Italian serenades and gondola songs. Riches taps a vein of noble anguish in ‘Edward Gray’ and beautifully probes the emotional ambiguities beneath the urbanity of the Hugo setting ‘O, ma charmante.’
Mary Bevan, meanwhile, is in glorious voice throughout. ‘Orpheus with his Lute’ is particularly exquisite, and her sense of line and floated high pianissimos are ravishing in ‘O Israel’. She manages to make ‘What does little birdie say’ remarkably touching, despite Tennyson’s dreadful poem. Yet there’s also enough power in the voice to steer her through bigger numbers such as ‘Guinevere!’, written for Thérèse Tietjens, a notable Norma and Trovatore Leonora in her day. Norris is finely alert throughout to the stylistic shifts and complexities of Sullivan’s piano writing, as well as providing scholarly booklet notes. They contain a hint that another set of Sullivan songs might be forthcoming: I eagerly await it, if so.