The Prodigal Son
Ian Hissock kindly provided the following review:
It is wonderful to have a complete professional recording of Sullivan's first oratorio, a work that I knew only vaguely from a few excerpts recorded in the early 1900's and from references in various books. To my delight I discovered I owned an elderly vocal score of the work and so was able to follow whilst listening. As is evident in The Golden Legend and the 'Irish' Symphony it is clear that Sullivan could handle larger musical structures as well as write tellingly for both performers and audiences alike. The work itself informs us of Sullivan's early style but also, along with the other large-scale choral works by Sullivan, serves to inform us about the development of the oratorio from Mendelssohn to Elgar.
As an oratorio, it is relatively short but this brings with it a conciseness and a sense of dramatic narrative. The choral writing must have been relished by the large, amateur choir in Worcester, and Sullivan's writing would have had its effect in a large cathedral acoustic. The opening orchestral prelude contains a very simple phrase, repeated and then taken up by the choir, "There is joy in the presence of the angels of God." Sullivan tellingly brings back this melody after the repentance of the prodigal son. Similarly a musical connection is made in the bass aria "For this my son" when, in the middle section, the words and the melody "Like as a father pitieth his own children" is brought back from the fugal section of this opening chorus. The Worcester choir must have had fun with "Let us eat and drink" where the tenor's melody is interrupted with interjections from the choir over an insistent ostinato pattern that, with its oriental overtones, foreshadows the writing of Holst. One of the great delights of the operas is Sullivan's orchestration and in "The Prodigal Son" there are some telling moments. The space that is achieved with the piccolo 'stranded' in the heights whilst the double bassoon goes down to its very lowest notes is delightful.
The largest single number in the work is the chorus No.15, "O That Men Would Praise The Lord." The chorus declaim these words confidently at the opening in A flat major, the music then moves to the relative minor for a two-part contrapuntal texture, first basses and sopranos, then with altos and tenors, "They Went Astray in the Wilderness." The accompaniment changes for the two statements with a rising 'cello figure providing interest in the bass. All four parts then move confidently into establishing the new tonic of F major for the reassurance that God will be there for those that cry out to him. This in turn moves into a four-part fugue, where the tempo is increased. The fugue subject itself is related to the opening material and there is a wonderful middle section with the words "And declare his wonders" where the choral writing becomes homophonic and Sullivan's orchestration changes to a deep, rich texture, highlighting the words. A dominant pedal adds tension and the music returns then to a triumphant conclusion in the tonic.
The tenor soloist has the role of the son and the bass the father. The female soloists add commentary and the chorus have the dual roles of commentators and participators in the narrative. There is a strong sense of commitment in the performance and my only concern about ensemble is feeling that, just occasionally the basses in the chorus are behind. The male soloists I find somewhat more pleasing than the ladies. I especially find the mezzo's tone difficult at times and would prefer a cleaner sound. However these are minor quibbles and the concern over the soloists perhaps more a matter of taste. What I find most gratifying is that the performances come across as involved with the drama, confident and sincere. It is good to hear this in these performances since the Victorian aesthetic is one that seems to cause problems at times.
The "Boer War Te Deum" comes from the end of Sullivan's life and is here given a fine performance. Sullivan's hymn tune "Onward Christian Soldiers" is used in the work. Rather than simply 'play the tune' it lies behind the orchestral writing and gives a coherence and direction to the work that is very effective.
I have had great pleasure in getting to know these works from these performances and do recommend this CD. With the success of Golden Legend issue, the Sir Arthur Sullivan Society is promoting issues of complete works rather than extracts. This policy is exciting in the results that it is achieving by putting Sullivan's work more into the public domain.