October 17, 2019
(++++) PLEASURES OF THE RARELY HEARD
Charles Villiers Stanford: The Travelling Companion. David Horton, Julien Van Mellaerts, Kate Valentine, Pauls Putnins, Ian Beadle, Felix Kemp, Tamzin Barnett, Lucy Urquhart; New Sussex Opera Chorus and Orchestra conducted by Toby Purser. SOMM. $39.98 (2 CDs).
Bach: Orchestral Suites Nos. 1-4; Johann Bernard Bach: Ouverture (Suite) in E minor; Johann Ludwig Bach: Ouverture (Suite) in G. Concerto Italiano conducted by Rinaldo Alessandrini. Naïve. $19.98 (2 CDs).
There are so many ways in which the word “rare” applies to the new SOMM recording of Charles Villiers Stanford’s The Travelling Companion. The composer himself is something of a rarity in the concert hall, although his music has been gradually getting more attention in recent years. He is very definitely rare on the opera stage, and exceptionally rare when it comes to opera on disc. The Travelling Companion is super-rare in recorded form: this live recording is its world première on CD. And here is a particularly interesting element of rarity for a work from 1916: this is a subtle, thoughtful and highly affecting opera, one that shows no significant signs of the tumultuous war year during which it was written. And one more rare thing: the opera is successful not only because of Stanford’s music but also because of an unusually intelligent and cogent libretto, which Henry Newbolt adapted from a fairy tale by none other than Hans Christian Andersen. Like so many of Andersen’s tales, the eponymous one on which The Travelling Companion is based is strongly anchored in a highly orthodox and somewhat straitlaced Christianity, despite its magical-fantasy framework. But being an intelligent adapter, Newbolt essentially dispenses with the preachiness and focuses on the fantastic elements – which, however, Stanford (1852-1924) refuses to use in an over-the-top fashion. There is only one named character in the opera: John, around whom the plot revolves. He is also the only high male voice (sung here by tenor David Horton): all the other men are baritones or bass-baritones, the lowest voice being that of the perpetually “perplext” king (Pauls Putnins). This use of vocal ranges effectively sets John apart from the world through which he moves – and Newbolt, like Andersen, sets him apart in other ways as well, through his essential goodness and desire to help others even at great personal expense (in Andersen’s story, this is because he is a simple, godly man; that motivation is less central to the opera). At one point in his wanderings to seek his fortune, John is joined by a “travelling companion” (baritone Julien Van Mellaerts), who, in Andersen’s tale, engages in a variety of magical matters: healing an old woman’s broken leg, bringing puppets to life, and more. Newbolt drops those elements, simply having the two men get to the heart of the tale by coming to a kingdom whose coldhearted princess demands that her suitors answer a question (three questions in Andersen) and kills them if, or rather when, they fail to do so – shades of Puccini’s Turandot a decade later! It turns out that the princess is in thrall to a troll in Andersen, an evil wizard in the opera. The Travelling Companion comes up with a way to thwart and destroy the evil one and break his spell’s hold on the princess (Kate Valentine) so that she can love John wholeheartedly – indeed, in the opera but not the original story, she has already begun to love him when he first appears. After John wins the princess and asks his companion to stay on in the kingdom, the answer is no: it turns out, in a wonderful twist used by both Andersen (explicitly) and Newbolt (implicitly), that the companion has done so much to aid John because he is repaying a debt – he is the revenant of a dead man whose corpse John prevented two ruffians from despoiling, even though doing so cost John all the money he had in the world. Toby Purser leads the New Sussex Opera Chorus and Orchestra with skill and enthusiasm throughout the opera, and all the casting is first-rate. Horton’s bright vocal tone complements Valentine’s powerful soprano very well, while Ian Beadle as the wizard and Felix Kemp as the Herald both show very well-tuned, flexible vocal instruments – so flexible that the baritones double as the two ruffians who had planned to desecrate the dead body. The orchestra overwhelms the singers every once in a while, and the chorus is not always as tightly knit as would be ideal, but these are minor imperfections in an exceptional recording whose packaging, thank goodness, includes the full libretto. The Travelling Companion was the ninth and last of Stanford’s operas and is generally deemed his best. Be that as it may, the release of this rarity whets the appetite for hearing more of what Stanford composed for the stage.
And what could possibly be considered rare in a recording of Bach’s orchestral suites (ouvertures)? Several things, as it turns out, when it comes to a marvelous new recording by Concerto Italiano under its founder, harpsichordist and conductor Rinaldo Alessandrini, on the Naïve label. Original-instrument recordings of Baroque music are no longer rare, true, but Alessandrini’s determination that Bach’s suites would have been played with a single instrument to a part leads to a full-voiced but decidedly chamber-music-like set of performances using a total of only 14 musicians (15 in Suite No. 4, which requires a third oboe). In addition, Alessandrini presents six Bach orchestral suites rather than the customary four – because he includes two by some of Bach’s second cousins, who turn out to be skilled composers in their own right. From Johann Bernard Bach (1676-1749) there is an extended minor-key suite that compares interestingly with Johann Sebastian’s No. 2, the only one of his four in a minor key. And from Johann Ludwig Bach (1677-1731) there is a short, snappy and upbeat suite in G that is pleasant and very tuneful. Alessandrini inserts one of the second-cousin suites between two of those by Johann Sebastian on each disc of the two-CD set, providing a fascinating opportunity to hear the similarities and differences among the three composers’ approaches while affirming that these suites – which are collections of popular dances of their time – were very much in favor in the early 18th century. The arrangement of Johann Sebastian’s suites is not the usual one: Nos. 3 and 1 appear in that order on the first disc, Nos. 4 and 2 in that order on the second. But since the numbering is known to be arbitrary and not necessarily reflective of the order in which the pieces were written, this does not really matter: the sequence here presumably reflects Alessandrini’s thinking about the most interesting way to juxtapose Johann Sebastian’s suites with those by Johann Bernard and Johann Ludwig (although Alessandrini’s otherwise detailed booklet notes do not actually say this). What is particularly interesting in this sequencing is that it leads up to Suite No. 2 as a finale, and that flute-focused piece, with its brilliant concluding Battinerie (Badinerie), does come across as the climax of the entire recording. The flexibility and attentiveness to detail of Concerto Italiano are evident throughout all six of these suites, and the charm, rhythmic contrast and differing emotional states of the various dances are brought out to very fine effect. The only discordant note (so to speak) in the whole production is the art, an element that is not usually worth mentioning one way or the other. Here, though, it draws attention to itself through sheer bizarrerie, featuring a man wearing sunglasses and dark blue surgical gloves who has apparently just parted the sort of plastic wrapping that is sometimes placed around seriously ill patients in hospitals. Appearing on the cover of both the package and the booklet, with an inside-the-package closeup of one of the man’s gloved hands, this self-consciously avant-garde photo illustration – done in blue and yellow to complement a release featuring one blue CD and one yellow one – distracts from the excellence of music and performances alike. But it is worth putting up with the silliness of the visual presentation in return for the chance to bask in the excellent of the aural one.