The Martyr of Antioch
Catherine Foster, soprano
The Northern Chamber Orchestra
Recorded at the Gilbert & Sullivan Festival
I had the great pleasure of being in the audience when this outstanding recording of The Martyr of Antioch was made. I would have liked a larger chorus (there were but forty of them). That minor quibble aside, this is a wonderful recording of a gorgeous piece, beautifully played. If the piece is not recorded again in our lifetimes, Martyr fans can die happy.
Martin Wright wrote:
The Martyr of Antioch is a fine testiment to Sullivan's wonderful ability as an agile and colourful orchestrator. It is consequently a great pleasure to hear the score played as well as it is in this new recording. Full credit to the Northern Chamber Orchestra & Richard Balcombe (also Clive Woods!). The tempi are on the quick side, mostly to good effect but occasionally (in particular, the final scene for Margarita) sounding rushed. The five soloists are extremely strong, and the best moments of this recording are the small ensemble scenes. A special mention for Stephen Brown's impassioned Olybius, which is a delight! There is one notable drawback to the recording, however: the chorus is simply too small to hold its own against the orchestra. I don't know to what extent this depended on the venue & position of microphones, &c., and the small chorus does sing well, but the lack of force takes something away from this otherwise excellent recording. Martyr was, after all, written for a choir of 300.
J. Derrick McClure wrote:
Well, can I just say how much I'm taken with the piece: it's not quite the horizon-expanding revelation that I found The Golden Legend to be, but it's got tons of charming and joyous writing. Apart from the stunning "Io Paean" (but I prefer the slightly slower tempo on the Sullivan & Co. recording), the opening and closing choruses (especially the latter, O!) are brilliant; and one unique number — my second favourite section in the oratorio — is the "Evening Song of the Maidens," an amazingly beautiful chorus like nothing else that I know of in Sullivan (I'd compare it, favourably, to the chorus of peasant girls in Eugene Onegin). Not all the solo writing reaches those heights: the big song "Come Margherita come" is a bit too redolent of the tenor drawing-room ballad style — but it's never less than good. Anybody who hasn't got this CD, GET IT! (What kind of idiot was it that charged The Martyr with "alternating between dullness and vulgarity"???)
Review by Stan DeOrsey
Recently Marc reviewed Sullivan's Church Music CD, and he commented that it took an effort to listen to it all at once. It does appear that Sullivan's music is divided between spirited theater music and, for lack of a better term, plodding church music. Not having heard much of Sullivan's oratorios, I assumed the Martyr would fall in the "plodding" category. However having just acquired the Symposium CD recorded at the 2000 Buxton Festival, it seems to bridge the two groups. The Introduction is somewhat tuneful, and the opening chorus is as spirited as a "normal" G&S opera. Indeed it is much more a theatrical performance with a number of wonderful choruses and solos, and very well performed.
Other reviewers have commented on the quickness of the tempi. I have very little to compare against, but if CD timings are used, the two excerpts on Sullivan and Co. are rather close — "Now Glory to God" is within 1 second, and "Io Paean" is 4:05 vs. 4:16 on Sullivan & Co. On the other hand, "Brother, thou art gone before us" is a full minute longer on the Church Music CD!
One item omitted from the Martyr CD is the Organ Solo beginning Scene 2. Either by happy coincidence or original plan, this is included on the Church Music CD. So logically the full performance can be reconstructed. For those who like live performances, while the Martyr CD was recorded live, it has eliminated all audience response. The CD was recorded with rather low volume (to reduce audience noise?) but if you increase your stereo volume it is heard quite effortlessly (though be sure to turn down the volume when you finish or your next CD will play rather forcefully). I agree with others who have said a larger chorus would have been better, but still this CD is more than acceptable.
As has been observed on previous Symposium CDs, the liner notes are a bit rough. Sullivan's Preface to the published score is included in the liner, but three full paragraphs are repeated twice, wasting half a page!! (The first line of the second paragraph ending in "third" should be followed by the second line of the last paragraph on the same page beginning "century.") On this same page in the first paragraph it indicates the major changes provided by Gilbert are flagged with an asterisk, but alas this is not so.
Gilbert wrote the song "Have mercy, unrelenting heaven!" on track 18, and it is said he changed 3 others to rhyme, but I don't know which these are — does anyone know?
Selwyn Tillett has suggested that we look closely at Martyr for the reuse of something from Thespis. Immediately after completing Pirates, which did reuse part of Thespis, Sullivan wrote Martyr and he was somewhat rushed when he did it. No specific number was suggested, but it is an interesting thought. Similarly, Martyr might be looked at as the serious work Sullivan always wanted Gilbert to write. While it lacks Gilbert's witty dialog, it is adapted from an existing work, as was Princess Ida, it is serious, and Sullivan dominates. Perhaps Gilbert was right, a cobbler should stick to his lasts, at least for financial success.
Back to the liner notes, the track listing is quite inconsistent, sometimes listing the song name and other times only identifying the roles. Interesting there is no identification of who sings which role. Track timings are also omitted. Below is my track list giving the info omitted. The entire chorus is credited by name (thank you all) but the orchestra is ignored. We are told how many of each instrument were present on the first night but no clue at all for the present recording. Lastly, there is no libretto, but happily it is available in the G&S archives and adds greatly to understanding the story — though I enjoy listening to the music without understanding each word — it's a new G&S opera again!
Nevertheless, this is a long overdue recording. It bridges Sullivan's theatrical and church styles and fills a minor gap in his work with Gilbert. I strongly encourage you to buy and try it. And I thank the Sullivan Society for their continuing success in making Sullivan's works available.
Stephen Turnbull's Comments
There is a lot in Stan's review. Bringing the CD of The Martyr to fruition was one of the more difficult projects I have taken part in on behalf of the Sullivan Society: it was a co-production between the Society and the International Gilbert and Sullivan Festival with substantial input (both financial and otherwise) from both bodies. It also happened — considering normal timescales for these things — very quickly. As the person most closely involved from the Sullivan Society side, I am in a position to answer or clarify some of the points Stan raises. In order:
The Tempi: The complete amateur recording of 1983 is slower. More to the point, timings have survived for a performance conducted by Sullivan himself — 1'40": allowing for the omitted organ solo, about a quarter of an hour slower than Balcombe. Doubtless Sullivan had larger forces and a more cavernous venue, which might have required him to slow down.
The Organ Solo: The organ solo was omitted purely due to reasons of time. Our original expectation was that the work would last around 1'40" and thus require two CDs. As it was, Balcombe brought it in much quicker, and the choice between a pleasant, if unspectacular organ solo (which can easily be detached from the rest of the work) and the extra costs inherent in a second CD was not a difficult one.
Chorus Size: As a member of that chorus, I agree too. The problem was that insufficient volunteers came forward and I was not made aware of the insufficiency until it was almost too late. It was too late to bring in a choir/choral society en bloc to provide reinforcements (I tried; so did Neil Smith), so what we had to do was bring in small groups ad hoc. These were of high quality: a few came from the Huddersfield Choral Society, a few from the Royal Northern College of Music, and three (very expensive) professional tenors. The quality of singing was consequently pretty good, but more voices would have been nice.
I question the statement that Gilbert wrote "Have mercy, unrelenting heaven!" The only place I have ever seen it is in Selwyn Tillett's 1983 booklet on The Martyr, and I don't know Selwyn's source. It is not among the items asterisked by Sullivan, which are:
"Come, Margarita, come" (Scene 1)
"Behold in yonder space" (Callias/Margarita duet in Scene 2)
"See what Olybius' love prepares for thee" (Scene 3)
I know of no reason why Sullivan would want to deny Gilbert credit for work he had done, especially given the cordial way both men were behaving towards each other during the collaboration on The Martyr, so until Selwyn declares his sources it remains a mystery.
Stan said, "Similarly, Martyr might be looked at as the serious work Sullivan always wanted Gilbert to write." I don't think this stands up. Gilbert's work on The Martyr was limited to reshaping a few already existing lyrics. The amount of alteration carried out was limited — much less than the adaptation done to The Princess to make it into Princess Ida. Gilbert couldn't be said to have written anything in the creative sense. Remember, too, that it came quite early in the collaboration (between Pirates and Patience) and pre-knighthood. The pressure on Sullivan to be "serious" was not so great, and the other tensions that later arose between S. and G. were not present in 1880. In fact, I suspect that the relationship between the two of them was never more cordial than it was at that time. Also, The Martyr is a concert, not a stage, work (although it was adapted as an opera in 1898).
|SCENE I. — The front of the Temple of Apollo|
|No. 1. CHORUS OF SUN WORSHIPPERS|
|2)||Lord of the golden day||6:22|
|3)||The love sick damsel (Julia)||11:19|
|No. 2. SOLO (Callias) and ARIA (Olybius)|
|4)||Break off the hymn! (Callias)||1:18|
|5)||Where is the crown; Come, Margarita, come (Olybius)||2:27|
|No. 3. DUET (Olybius and Callias)|
|6)||Great Olybius, 'tis said that here in Antioch||1:59|
|No. 4. CHORUS|
|7)||Long live the Christian's scourge||1:07|
|SCENE II. — The Burial place of the Christians — Night|
|ORGAN SOLO [omitted]||[2:30]|
|No. 5. — FUNERAL ANTHEM (Unaccompanied)|
|8)||Brother, thou hast gone before us||4:10|
|No. 6. SOLO (Fabius)|
|9)||Brother, thou slumberest||2:08|
|No. 7. SOLO, RECITATIVE, and HYMN (Margarita)|
|10)||Yet once again; For thou didst die for me||5:53|
|No. 8. — DUET (Margarita and Callias)|
|11)||My own, my loved, my beauteous child!||5:28|
|SCENE III. — Palace of the Prefect|
|No. 9. — "EVENING SONG OF THE MAIDENS" CHORUS|
|12)||Come away with willing feet||4:55|
|No. 10. — RECITATIVE and AIR (Olybius)|
|13)||Sweet Margarita, give me thine hand for once||3:19|
|No. 11. — DUET (Margarita and Olybius)|
|14)||Oh, hear me, Olybius||3:40|
|SCENE IV. — The Temple of Apollo|
|No. 12. — CHORUS (Heathen Maidens and Christian)|
|15)||Now glory to the God who breaks||2:47|
|No. 13. — SOLO (Julia) and CHORUS|
|16)||The maids lift up their hymn around the temple; Io Paean!||4:05|
|No. 14. — SCENE (Margarita, Julia, Olybius, Callias, and Chorus)|
|17)||Great is Olybius, and his mercy great! [with Margarita's complete solo]||5:58|
|No. 15. — QUARTET (Margarita, Julia, Olybius, and Callias)|
|18)||Have mercy, unrelenting heaven! [song by W.S. Gilbert]||2:50|
|No. 16. — CHORUS. — FINALE|
|19)||The hour of mercy's o'er — or sacrifice or die [original shorter finale]||6:13|