Sullivan: The Light of the World

Karen Johnson, soprano
Adrienne Murray, contralto
Paul Dutton, tenor
Stephen Wells, baritone
Richard Wiegold, bass

NFMS North West Festival Choir
Liverpool Youth Choir
St. Julie's R.C. School Choir
Chester Music Society Choir
Hulme Singers

Organist: David Houlder
Conductor: John Bethell

Recorded at Liverpool Anglican Cathedral
25 November 2000

NFMS WRW202-2.
The Light of the World, by Holman Hunt (Manchester City Art Galleries).

Review by Paul Ensell

This is nicely packaged, with a cover showing the eponymous Holman Hunt painting, and matching the newly produced vocal score (which Cramer produced for this performance — an excellent new VS if anybody's interested). The notes include the full libretto and some other information. I might have liked to know something about the soloists, but there are only their names.

There are some interesting moments in this recording. I was almost totally new to this piece, having only heard "In Rama," the Andante Pastoral, and "And God Shall Wipe Away All Tears" before, out of an Oratorio that lasts 2 hours 45.

Many of the problems of the piece can be laid at Sullivan's door, This is probably one of the worst pieces (as a whole) that he wrote. There are "wonderful moments," and to go with them the "dreadful quarter hours", to use a quote originally applied to Wagner. I think much of the problem may have been the libretto which Sullivan chose from the Bible himself, If he'd persuaded someone else to do this, things might have improved.

The recording itself has its own high and low spots, I'll start with the highs. The soloists are generally very good, I particularly felt for the baritone who had lots to do, and all of it dull, but who did his best with what he was given (as did the other four soloists). The soprano had probably the most interesting music, and did the best with it — I don't know how the soprano music would normally have been split, as the piece should use two sopranos, and here we had one.

The children's choir is excellent, singing wonderfully. Here again, they are helped by some of the more interesting music. They even got extra to do, as in the trio with Chorus for two sopranos and alto, the solo lines were taken by the children.

The organist must have had rather sore fingers by the time he finished, as without an orchestra he had to play for the entire Oratorio! And from what can be heard through the acoustic he does very well.

Now the problems: If anybody records this again, can we have an orchestra please? I think most of the sound problems can be put down to the acoustic of the building, but there is far too mush music which is obviously written for scampering strings, that just doesn't work on the organ.

The lack of a second soprano meant that a quintet (SSATB) was given to the chorus, which I think may have lost most of its effect.

The chorus — I don't know (I wasn't there) — sound like they have an average age of 65, the tenors and sopranos are struggling at the top, the basses are too quiet to hear much of the time — possibly their placing in relationship to the microphone? It's only the contraltos that seems to have the idea, and to be relishing what they have to do.

There are a three cuts marked in the booklet, and there are a couple more that I noticed as I listened, and checked with the VS. The cuts are not the cleanest, and are rather worrying in that they seem to be in the hardest sections of choral singing, or in the sections most exposed for the tenors, this seems to imply that the singing in these sections was perhaps not up to scratch.

All in all, very "Curates Egg," but as we are unlikely to get an alternative for some years, we'll have to enjoy the good parts and put up with the rest.

Comments by Stephen Turnbull

I know that an orchestra was considered, but the cost of employing one would have been prohibitive. Also, it was believed at the time the performance was planned that there was no playable set of band parts. (This is not true — the Sullivan Society owns two sets and knows of at least two others).

All who buy these CDs — and I hope everyone will — should bear in mind that they are listening to a recording of a live performance, with all that that entails (both good and bad). As Paul says, it will do very well until a complete version with full orchestra (and done to the standard we are expecting from the Hyperion Golden Legend) turns up. Only then will we be in a position to make a firm assessment of just how good or bad this work is.

Comments by Ray Walker

The CD set of the work was taken at a live performance at Liverpool Anglican Cathedral to mark a special event by the National Federation of Music Societies NW choirs. The event had to coincide with the stronger attraction of The Golden Legend in Edinburgh. Despite the various coughs (and in one place the dropping of a score) I felt it important to make a high fidelity DAT recording to enable the choir and Sullivan enthusiasts who couldn't attend to have access to the work. All soloists are professionals, the organ is well played, and the children's choirs (the angels) is particularly fine.

In response to the thread started by Paul Ensell and continued by Stephen Turnbull about the absence of an orchestra, it is true that this was considered. The conductor was unaware of the SASS library sets and Cramer could not initially confirm that they had a set. As there were originally two performances planned in Manchester cathedral as well as Liverpool, it would have been too difficult to rehearse and transport an orchestra to two locations. However, the organ at Liverpool is perhaps superior to the Ely Cathedral one (but I'm biased) and those possessing both disc sets can make the comparison.

The Liverpool performance was useful in two important ways—

  1. It brought about a newly set version of Cramer's 272-page score of the oratorio.
  2. The recording provides a benchmark to allow an assessment of the piece and encourage more performances and an orchestral version to be put together at some future date.

Editor's Postscript

This recording, perhaps more than any other, underscores the dilemma I face when considering the inclusion of amateur recordings at this website. There is no professional recording of The Light of the World, and the only previous amateur recording is long out of print. To those who are interested in Sullivan's "serious music," a flawed recording is still better than none at all.

But this recording is far worse than merely "flawed." I am more struck by its "dreadful quarter hours" (and on a 3-CD set there are many of these) than its "wonderful moments." The organ-playing is especially dire — in many places all one hears is a mushy pea-soup of smudged pitches and rhythms. The "Andante Pastorale," perhaps the best known movement in the work, is essentially an unrecognizable blur.

The last several years have been almost utopian for those who wished to hear more of Sullivan's oeuvre than just his operas with Gilbert. Several wonderful recordings with partly amateur forces have been welcome additions to the catalogue. I cannot in good conscience recommend this one, unless you are particularly desperate to hear The Light of the World.

The recording is available at £25 to U.K. addresses, £28 to U.S. and Canadian addresses, from: Ray Walker, 6 Lindow Fold, Wilmslow, Cheshire SK9 6DT, UK. Checks must be denominated in sterling.

Issue History
2001 NFMS (Private Issue) CD WRW202-2