Sullivan: The Golden Legend

Overture "In Memoriam"

Elizabeth McKeon, soprano
Heather Boyd, contralto
Steven Griffin, tenor
Bruce Graham, baritone

The Savoyard Chorus and Orchestra

Conductor: David Lyle

Recording of a live performance given in St. Cuthberts Church, Edinburgh, on 25th November 2000

Savoyard Chorus and Orchestra WP1100
Savoyard Chorus and Orchestra WP1100

Sullivan considered The Golden Legend his greatest achievement in serious music, and in his lifetime it was an unquestioned success. The work was given over three hundred times between 1886 and the end of the nineteenth century. At one point, Sullivan actually refused to authorize performances in and around London, as it had become dangerously over-exposed. But with changing tastes and a generally negative re-assessment of Sullivan in the early twentieth century, the Legend fell into almost complete obscurity. Conductor David Lyle believes that this performance was the first in Scotland in at least fifty years.

Until this recording, I had heard The Golden Legend only once before (the 2000 Sullivan Festival in Aberystwyth, Wales, under David Russell Hulme). This time, I follwed the recording with a score and gained a much greater appreciation of the work's strengths. The weaknesses of Joseph Bennett's libretto are, unfortunately, equally apparent.

I was taken by the appropriatness of coupling The Golden Legend and the Overture "In Memoriam," not only because both require an organ, but also because they end in similar fashion.

The performance won first prize in a competition run by the British Music Association, called "Choral Music for the Millennium," designed to promote and encourage the performance of rarely-heard, British choral music. One can see why: The playing and singing are first-rate.

About the only significant criticism I would make is that, during the fortissimo passages, sometimes the singers are not audible, particularly the soloists. No doubt a larger battery of microphones (and the opportunity to edit the mix afterwards) would have cured this, but I am also aware that a more complicated technical set-up increases the costs considerably.

At this writing, the recording was not available for mass distribution, but copies might still be available from the conductor, David Lyle, at Lyle, who conducted the Prince Consort recordings of Sullivan's non-Gilbert operas, is to be commended for his lifetime of dedication to music that deserves to be far more often heard.

Review by Paul Ensell

Here we have an Orchestra (and organ) that is under firm control. We start with the overture "In Memoriam," and a very nice reading of the piece it is. You do feel the occasional shiver down your spine at the appropriate moments.

On to the Cantata itself: The soloists are excellent, including some names I recognised. The Tenor is a little quiet at times, but this is just a little niggle. I don't know where the microphones were placed, which could have a large bearing on the balance of the piece.

As the booklet points out, there is comparatively little for the chorus to do, so the soloists are kept busy (especially Bruce Graham, who doubles as "Lucifer" and "A Forester").

The chorus relish what they have to do, producing some very nice sounds, and coping well with what sounds like some rather unusual music for Sullivan, inclulding some decidedly different harmonies.

The orchestra also has some very different harmonies and rhythms, which they manage very well. Much of the music in this piece looks forward to the 20th century, rather than the sometimes staid orchestrations that Sullivan could use, when less inspired.

Before listening to this CD I knew three or four sections of the piece, I realise that this was probably because it is quite difficult to remove individual sections from the scenes, as each scene is very much constructed as a whole (the evening hymn being the obvious exception). I will definately be listening to this more — in fact it's on the CD player now.

All in all, it's an excellent recording of an excellent work.

Issue History
2001 Savoyard Chorus and Orchestra CD WP1100