The Hyperion Contrabandista and Foresters (2004)
The London Chorus
Additional soloists in The Foresters:
On this disc, two Sullivan works are recorded professionally for the first time: The Contrabandista and The Foresters. There is no particular connection between the two, except that neither had been recorded professionally before (and indeed, The Foresters not at all); and that both happened to fit musically complete on one CD.
It is an excellent recording, very capably sung. You'll either love Richard Suart's Grigg or hate it, but his musicianship is first-rate, including several strong top G's that are well above anything he has to sing in his "usual" roles.
I've listened to The Contrabandista three times—following twice with the vocal score, and once with the new full score that Amber Ring has recently issued. The work has grown on me. Even as early as 1867, Sullivan's dramatic instincts are nearly infallible. The present orchestration, dating from an 1874 revision, is full of little surprises.
The second act of The Contrabandista seems to me distinctly inferior. Part of the fault lies with Burnand: the plot stalls while we await the deus ex machina that ends the story. As we so often find in Sullivan's works, when the story loses focus, so does the composer. Mind you, Act II has its moments of interest, but it lacks the sustained inspiration of the first. Perhaps it's not surprising that when Burnand and Sullivan revised the work in 1894 as The Chieftain, they jettisoned their original second act. Fortunately, the second act is fairly brief.
There is less to say about The Foresters, but the performance is superb. Even with the significant Sullivan revival of the last twenty years, this work was almost completely off the radar screen. This recording shows that Sullivan was at his near-best in this score, notwithstanding the limitations of Tennyson's play.
A recording of this importance naturally called forth several reviews on Savoynet, of which I offer three below. First, from Ian Bond:
Firstly can I say that this was something of a 'curates egg' — I unexpectedly thoroughly enjoyed what I had expected to be lukewarm about and was slightly disappointed in what I had expected to thoroughly enjoy.
The Contrabandista. Things started badly through the first two tracks — not only was the orchestra incredibly boomby, with the timpani overprominent and the chorus in the first number almost non-existent having been placed far to far back, but there was a flutter in the louder passages indicative of a faulty CD. This cleared by the third track but the problem of bad focus between the orchestra and the singers was not resolved. It was as if the Bayreuth orchestra was employed to accompany an operetta. The flutter reappeared in track 9 so I swapped to another CD deck and the problem resolved. However, in the Act One Finale another problem with microphone positioning occurred as a male choral voice was very prominent in the left speaker (almost drowning out the rest of the cast) and at the end Rita's line was prominent enough to overpower the main melody which is with the chorus.
Most of these problems seemed to have been resolved in Act Two although the recording level of the orchestra remained very high.
The surprise for me was The Foresters which I had only heard before in a recorded performance from Generally G & S with piano accompaniment. Hyperion presumably recorded this at some other time with different recording engineers. The balance was right and as a result the score shines!! It is beautiful!! The CD is worth the price for this 22 minutes alone.
Don't get me wrong — The Contrabandista is a very valuable addition to the Sullivan recorded repertoire and far superior to that by the Prince Consort (issued by Chris Webster) which is now effectively knocked out of the frame altogether, but Hyperion could, and have done better, it is not the fault of the cast, orchestra or conductor, it is purely a technical problem and, as I say, it seems more or less resolved in Act Two, but Foresters is perfect.
Alan Borthwick had an emphatic response, which comes with unique authority, as Borthwick was partly responsible for the only other recording in the catalog:
Recent correspondence on Savoynet has spurred me on to write to the group. Someone needs to congratulate all concerned on the high quality of the new Contrabandista/Foresters recording!!!! I was horrified to see the modified rapture and the attempts to justify perceived "flaws" in recording and performance. Let's get things straight folks!!!! We have here a fully professional recording of these pieces —at last!!! —and one that everyone should be welcoming unreservedly and with open arms.
Of course we all have ideas of what we would consider to be the correct "ambience" and "balance" for a recording of a Sullivan opera, and we have singers that we like and others we don't. These are personal choices. Personally I always preferred the "pit band" sound of the 1949/50 Decca recordings to the fuller sound of the later series, and I would have liked less reverb on this new recording and a different balance for the chorus. However, in general I preferred the singers on the 59/60s Decca series. But these are personal choices. To criticise a recording because it doesn't play well on a particular home audio system is surely perverse!! Of course it could be that Hyperion had issued a batch that is in some way flawed, but I can assure the group that my copy played beautifully with no distortion at any point and with the principal voices beautifully captured. I note that one of your correspondents complains that a male chorus voice was very prominent in part of the act one finale. The score indicates clearly that the part referred to is scored for chorus plus Sancho and Jose. The "prominent" voice is obviously that of Mr Maxwell in the role of Jose. Having sung frequently with the gentleman in question I can vouch for the fact that he would be heard clearly over any chorus —and then some!!! And surely this is just what Sullivan required!! If Rita’s voice does indeed overpower the main melody at the end of the finale (another criticism from the same correspondent) I would suggest that this is less an engineering balance problem than the fact that Sullivan almost certainly wrote the lines for Rita and Vasquez high in their registers with the sole purpose of having the countermelody soar over the other voices (or "overpower the main melody" if one wants to be less charitable!!). Possibly the balance engineers slightly overdid this? You may think so — I don’t!! Personal choice!
So at last those of us who recorded the works with The Prince Consort get their wish!!! To use Mr Bond's true, but rather hurtful phrase, we are effectively "knocked out of the frame." I would simply add "AT LAST"!!! We always hoped that our attempts (made on less than a shoestring and, in the cases of The Contrabandista and The Chieftain issued very reluctantly because, as I explained on the sleeve notes, neither David Lyle nor myself were happy with the performance and the recording balance) would give people a taste for the S-without-G operas and that our efforts would ultimately lead to fully professional recordings being issued. Whether or not our efforts helped in any way to bring about this new recording I neither know nor care. The fact is that a spanking good recording of The Contrabandista is now on the shelves and, yes, feel free to put the Prince Consort recording of the piece to the bottom of the pile!! However, maybe you'll retain just a small bit of affection for it. There again.... !!!
Thankyou to SASS and to Hyperion for these recordings —and to Sir Arthur for writing such wonderful pieces.
And isn't The Foresters a real gem? Bliss!!
And lastly, Martin Wright:
The new CD is thoroughly enjoyable, and an important contribution to the Sullivan revival. The incongruous coupling is more than justified by the need for these two works to be issued, and 76 minutes of music is a generous helping.
It must be said that The Contrabandista is an exceptionally silly opera. Charming in places —we all know about "Only the night wind", which remains the highlight, but the rest of the music for soprano and tenor is also most attractive. Much of the rest is quite perfunctory. It's commonplace to observe that Sullivan is hampered by an appalling libretto, but he made less of an effort to overcome this here than he would in later works, like for instance Beauty Stone or Emerald Isle. Still, numbers like "From rock to rock" or "Let Hidalgos be proud of their breed" are amusing in themselves and prophetic of what is to come. Overall it's a most entertaining work.
I was more excited about the prospect of hearing Foresters in full score, and was not at all disappointed. Like so much of Sullivan's music, this delightful work looks flat in vocal score, but bounds into life with an orchestra. The scoring is exquisite, and one does not miss the heavy brass or percussion one jot. In particular the fairy scene, which I had always previously considered nonsense, turns out to be quite ingenious (and very reminiscent of Iolanthe).
As always, the New London Orchestra plays expertly under the intelligent direction of Ronald Corp. The London Chorus is quite acceptable in the few ensembles in Contrabandista, but struggles with some of the four-part men's writing in Foresters. Frances McCafferty is the pick of the soloists, particularly as Marian, while Donald Maxwell and Geoffrey Moses make a fine pair of brigands. Richard Suart is his usual blustering self as Grigg, coping less comfortably with this role's higher tessitura than he does in G & S. In summary, a wonderful disc which anybody remotely interested in Sullivan should buy without hesitation.
Others have already questioned the assertion in the liner notes that "perhaps without Contra. there would have been no G & S". I take issue with what seems to me a rather more outrageous claim, that Contra., along with Cox & Box and Trial, is "one of the three foundation-stones in the whole edifice of British musical theatre".
Sullivan was certainly doing something new in Contra., which was important for his later career and therefore for the English musical stage. But he was not laying a foundation-stone. The liner notes (which are excellent and informative, despite this reservation) acknowledge the existing traditions of Offenbach adaptations and Reed's gallery of illustration which S. & Burnand were tapping into. And also relevant, though less important for Contra. than for Sullivan's later comic operas, is the English romantic opera tradition, deriving in turn from the ballad operas dating back to The Beggar's Opera. It is a mistake to see G & S as a freak phenomenon, isolated from the English musical stage/operatic tradition. As Sullivan apologists we must take care not to stake our claims too high: Sir Arthur was an immensely significant figure in this tradition, but not the foundation on which the whole edifice rests.