Symphony in E Major "Irish." Overture: In Memoriam. Suite from
BBC Philharmonic Orch/Richard Hickox, cond.
CHANDOS 9859 (F) (DDD) TT: 75:11
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Sir Arthur Seymour Sullivan (1842-1900) is known today primarily for his collaboration with Sir William Schwenk Gilbert (1836-1911) on a series of operettas. However, he intended to be a serious musician, studying at the Leipzig Conservatory beginning in 1858. There, inspired by Mendelssohn's A Midsummer Night's Dream, he wrote incidental music for Shakespeare's The Tempest, excerpts from which were performed at his graduation concert April 6, 1861 with the composer conducting. The following year the complete score was presented in London to great acclaim, with five of the numbers being encored. After this, Sullivan composed oratorios, songs, anthems and hymn-tunes, conducted at festivals, directed the National Training School, received honorary degrees and was knighted. In 1867 his first comic opera appeared, a setting of Burnand's Cox and Box. Sullivan met Gilbert and it changed his life forever as a British tradition. Trial by Jury appeared in 1875 followed by The Sorcerer (1877), H.M.S. Pinafore (1878), The Pirates of Penzance (1880), Patience (1881), Iolanthe (1882), Princess Ida (1884), The Mikado(1885), Ruddigore (1887), The Yeomen of the Guard (1888), The Gondoliers (1889), Utopia Limited (1893) and The Grand Duke (1896). So popular were these that the Savoy Theatre was built just for their presentation. Although Sullivan wrote operettas with other collaborators those had limited success.
Although twelve numbers were in the original score for The Tempest, the concert suite consists of only seven: Introduction, Prelude to Act III, Banquet Dance, Overture to Act IV, Dance of Nymphs and Reapers (reminiscent of a Mendelssohn scherzo), Prelude to Act V, and Epilogue. Throughout there are traces of the delightful tunes to follow later in the operettas. In 1860, in an effort to gain recognition as a composer, Sullivan started work on a symphony based on impressions of a trip to Ireland but not incorporating folk tunes. As Andrew Lamb's notes point out, at the time the Symphony in E Major was written, Brahms, Dvorák and Tchaikovsky had yet to write their first symphonies. Influences heard hereand they are strongare from works of Mendelssohn, Schubert and Schumann. It's a delightful thirty-six minute symphony in four movements, the third of which is a light-hearted scherzo. Don't get it confused with the "Irish" Symphony by Irish composer Herbert Hamilton Harty composed more than forty years later, a much more substantial work in every way that does use many familiar Irish songs. In Memoriam was written as a tribute to the composer's father. Sullivan described it as "an outpouring of grief, but its pervading tone is not one of sadness so much as deep affection."
The BBC Philharmonic is at its best in these performances, under Richard Hickox's spirited direction. There is another recording of the Symphony, on CPO with the BBC Concert Orchestra conducted by Owain Arwel Hughes; I haven't heard it; Tempest and Memoriam are the only ones available. Chandos' sound is state-of-the-art. Highly recommended