SULLIVAN The Light of the World
Now here’s a genuine find. Premiered to enormous acclaim at the 1873 Birmingham Musical Festival, the 31-year-old Arthur Sullivan’s large-scale oratorio The Light of the World (to a strikingly eclectic text compiled by his good friend George Grove, himself an amateur biblical scholar of renown) emerges after many decades of unjust neglect as a splendidly distinctive, unstuffy achievement, brimful of captivating melodic charm, communicative flair and technical confidence, always displaying an enviably sure dramatic instinct (Gounod for one had no hesitation in pronouncing it a masterpiece).
Especially imaginative is Sullivan’s deployment of an inner-orchestra to accompany the words of Jesus, the mellow timbre of violas, cellos, cor anglais, bass clarinet and contrabassoon registering to frequently ear-pricking effect. Listen out, too, for a clutch of exhilarating, at times arrestingly Lisztian choruses (‘I will pour my spirit’, ‘The grave cannot praise thee’, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David’, ‘Men and brethren’ and ‘Him hath God exalted’). Other highlights include the lovely quintet ‘Doubtless thou art our Father’ and soprano aria ‘Tell ye the Daughter of Zion’ (such enchantingly Mendelssohnian clarinets), the powerful Overture to Part 2, Mary Magdalene’s almost operatic ‘Lord, why hidest thou thy face?’, and that piercingly expressive orchestral interlude that opens the final scene entitled ‘At the Sepulchre – Morning’ (pre-echoes here of Elgar). Wonderfully affecting, too, is the purely orchestral introduction to the memorable ‘Weep ye not for the dead’, and the sublime unaccompanied vocal quartet ‘Yea, though I walk through the valley’ (both these numbers were in fact performed at Sullivan’s funeral in 1900).
No praise can be too high for the present big-hearted revival. John Andrews directs proceedings with the utmost care and infectious conviction, and elicits ideally fervent and polished results from his assembled choral and orchestral forces. Among the excellent team of soloists there are standout contributions from the baritone Ben McAteer, mezzo-soprano Kitty Whately and soprano Eleanor Dennis. The SACD sound is superb, possessing a most beguiling warmth and amplitude, while the balance throughout has been most judiciously struck. Dutton’s copious presentation is a model of its kind, incorporating full texts as well as outstandingly thoughtful essays by Martin Yates and Ian Bradley. Plaudits to everyone involved with this enterprising release.