Peggy Glanville-hicks: Sappho

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Whatever your views on the music or the performance, that this recording exists at all is an extraordinary story, and due congratulations must be offered to the hard work and dedication of all involved, in particular of Jennifer Condon. Her “normal” job is as a prompter at the Hamburg Opera, but she has been responsible for editing this previously unpublished work, preparing it for performance, persuading a large and distinguished cast to take part, in some cases without any remuneration, as well as conducting the performance. This shows a commitment to the work that may seem eccentric to the cynical but heroic to others who have laboured in vain on behalf of other similarly neglected works.
Peggy Glanville-Hicks was an Australian composer whose teachers included Vaughan Williams, Egon Wellesz and Nadia Boulanger, who was married for a time to Stanley Bate, another neglected composer, and who spent twenty years in New York before moving to Greece and finally back to Australia. Her other works include the opera The Transposed Heads, commissioned by the Louisville Orchestra and recorded by them in the 1950s and in 1984 by the West Australian Symphony Orchestra. I have listened many times to both recordings with increasing pleasure so that I have been very eager to hear the present discs.
Sappho is a setting of an adaptation by the composer of a verse play by Lawrence Durrell. It tells of the Lesbian (but not lesbian) poet Sappho in her latter years when she was married to a wealthy local merchant, Kreon. The various scenes show her with the twin brothers, Pittakos and Phaon, with her tutor, Minos, and with Diomedes, a drunken poet. Towards the end she is exiled to Corinth on a false charge of incest. Her final monologue, the only part of the opera to have been publicly performed, is the clear climax of the opera, with Sappho accepting the impermanence of personal relationships as well as of her own life. It mirrors similar scenes at the end of operas by Strauss and Janácek, albeit that it is very different in its musical style. That style derives to a great degree from the composer’s attempt to reduce the importance of harmony in music, and to throw the emphasis instead on texture and tone, melody and heterophony. The result may seem a little bland at first but the listener soon adjusts to the composer’s very individual style.
A quick glance at the cast list shows several distinguished Wagnerian singers. Very surprisingly that appears to have been a necessity due to the weight of some of the orchestration. The conductor’s note indicates that she believes that with adjustment to dynamics and some of the orchestration it could be performed on a smaller scale, and I have to say that this would be welcome. In fact the ideal might be to retain the Wagner-sized voices but allow them to sing at somewhat less than full power. That would permit a more nuanced approach to performance and a more natural delivery of the, admittedly somewhat flowery, text. I am full of admiration for the cast here, who have taken on a major new work with obvious enthusiasm, but it has to be admitted that for much of the time there is a lack of any attempt at light or shade in their singing. The many singers for whom English is not their first language cope well but it cannot be said that the result sounds idiomatic. Admittedly the results in the case of the English-speaking artists are not all that much better, and although I attempted to follow what was being sung without it after a while I found myself wholly dependent on the printed libretto to understand what was being said or even who was saying it.
Sappho is by no means as immediately attractive as is The Transposed Heads, partly due to an apparent preponderance of slow or slowish music, but enough is revealed through this very welcome issue to suggest that subject to the preparation of a performance edition that would make it kinder to singers and to a greater familiarity with the work it would certainly merit stage performance. In the meantime we should once again thank Jennifer Condon for her untiring efforts to make it possible to hear the work and all the singers and players who helped her in this. Congratulations also to Toccata Classics whose presentation of the issue, with essays on the work, the edition, Durrell and Sappho, together with the full libretto, does all that could be done to help the listener and encourage understanding of this important discovery.
-- John Sheppard, MusicWeb International

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: TOCC0154-55

  • UPC: 5060113441546

  • Label: Toccata Classics

  • Composer: Peggy Glanville-Hicks

  • Conductor: Jennifer Condon