German: Tom Jones / Hulme, Staykov, Morrison, Shipp, National Festival Orchestra & Chorus, Et Al

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Only one operetta of the four Edward German composed is represented in full on disc. That sole entry is an old EMI recording of Merrie England with William McAlpine and June Bronhill in the 1960s (CfP 757 6727). The arrival of Tom Jones is a welcome addition as it allows a better assessment of German’s quality of penmanship. Over the last few years CD recordings of German’s symphonies and theatre incidental music have appeared on the Dutton and Marco Polo. A 1966 EMI highlights disc of Tom Jones (coupled with The Beggar’s Opera) was reissued a few years ago on Classics for Pleasure CfP 759 7227 in a recording by the largely forgotten Gilbert Vinter with the Nigel Brooks chorus. Naxos offer us the full opera.

When Tom Jones was staged in 1907 it was greeted with success that equaled that of Merrie England premiered five years earlier. The new opera was believed by many to be German’s operatic masterpiece. Its success was understandable since the composer deliberately used a similar format, structure and ballad-style to that he provided in Merrie England.

German was born in deep country (Whitchurch, Salop) and had received a good grounding in musical education at the Royal Academy of Music. He provided incidental music for a number of Shakespearian plays that was much admired. Unusually, he was given a rare opportunity to discover the secrets of a successful operatic composer when invited to complete Emerald Isle, the comic opera Arthur Sullivan left unfinished when he unexpectedly died. The D’Oyly Carte establishment had decided that German was the most competent craftsman in Britain at the time to complete the master’s work and entrusted him with the task, which he did competently. Thus German had an unexpected operatic foundation on which to build his newly found talents.

In this first full recording of the complete Tom Jones we have a fresh and sprightly reading by David Russell Hulme. Hulme is no stranger to German, having for many years researched and studied the late 19th Century operatic tradition where German received his grounding. From the opening of Act I we can imagine a sun-drenched Somerset countryside with bustling villagers going about their business on Squire Western’s estate. German successfully creates that idyllic country charm of the olde English idiom made popular in his Nell Gwyn dances and later recalled by Coates and Grainger. The second Act is set at the Inn at Upton, … and yes the small hamlet of Upton in Somerset does exist. The Ranelagh Gardens setting for Act III may well be related to the palace gardens at Wiveliscombe near Taunton.

To my ears, the highlights of the opera are the Introduction and Act I opening, the “Wisdom says” trio, the “Barley Mow” sextet, a haunting Barcarolle and the Morris Dance of Act III.

There is a well-founded belief in the theatre that too many characters in a show leads to a complex plot. It may also result in insufficient exposure of a character to develop the personality sufficient to hold an audience’s interest. The characters in this comic opera are many. Thirty are catalogued in the vocal score, many of whom are individually listed in this recording. Fortunately in Tom Jones, many of these characters are embedded in the chorus and so the difficulties mentioned above do not occur. With a book fairly close to Fielding’s original novel, Squire Western, the jovial squire of the village - sung with purposeful authority by Donald Maxwell - wishes to see his mischievous and flirtatious daughter, Sophia, engaged to an insipid Mr Blifil. Sophia has other plans as she is increasingly enamoured by the advances made by villager Tom Jones, a lad who is champion of the chase and is seen as a lovable rascal by the Squire and villagers. Richard Morrison as Tom manages to provide that carefree charisma needed to attract attention and sings well with clear diction in “West Country lad”.

Sophia, sung by Marianne Hellgren Staykov, is charming, especially in the languid and sleepy “Love makes the Heart”, admirably supported by equally fine singing by Rachel Harland (Betty) and Elizabeth Menezes (Peggy) in ‘The Barley Mow’. Betty and Peggy have little input to the plot yet are vital to the balance of numbers. Honour, Sophia’s maid is given as large a part as Sophia and sings in many numbers. Heather Shipp plays the role with the protective innocence that a servant might have for her mistress. In her two solo numbers, I found her very responsive to the situation in a cheery rendering of ‘The Green Ribbon”.

The comedy in this opera is carried by two G&S patter-men, Simon Butteriss (the servant, Gregory) and Richard Suart (village barber, Ben). Gregory who regularly has to cart a drunken Squire off to bed delivers the zaniest of West Country numbers in “Jan Tappin oi niver did zee”, with its phrase-echoing chorus. Ben, who after an introduction reminiscent of John Wellington Wells (The Sorcerer), launches into a patter song ‘A Person of Parts’ that is amusing and well sung, yet with its off-beat Latin adds nothing to the plot’s development. Where was the writers’ joke? A laughing trio, “You have a Pretty Wit” is a jolly, vivacious piece that is engaging because of its brisk pace.

This comic opera, with fast-flowing and witty dialogue, is given a broad West Country setting by its authors Thompson and Courtneidge with its libretto written phonetically; e.g. ‘Somersetshire’ written as ‘Zummersetsheer’, to make sure the words are delivered in the vernacular! In a budget label recording, it would be too much to expect the booklet to contain a full libretto, but one expects too much for words to be heard above a full orchestra. I would have preferred to pay a little extra for its inclusion (see Editor's Note below). Amongst the notes is an interesting section where Hulme mentions the evolution of the original production and explains the origination of three additional numbers provided at the end of CD 2. Amongst them are two very appetizing numbers: a romantic song for Sophia, “By Day and Night” and a catchy trio with skipping rhythm, “Come away” (Tom, Sophia, & Honour).

David Russell Hulme imbues the score with freshness in his spirited reading. The orchestra plays magnificently in the warm acoustic of the RNCM’s Concert Hall. I was amused to see that the same name, ‘Donald Maxwell’, has been copy/pasted as electronic text as artist in all track numbers yet I don’t think he plays the role of Sophia or Honour although indicated as such!

Raymond J Walker, MusicWeb Internatioal

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: 8660270-71

  • UPC: 730099027076

  • Label: Naxos

  • Composer: Edward German

  • Conductor: David R. Hulme

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: National Festival Orchestra

  • Performer: Annette Stein, Ashley Bremner, Catrine Kirkman, Donald Maxwell, Elizabeth Menezes, Gaynor Keeble, Giles Davies, Heather Shipp, Iestyn Morris, Karen Wise, Marianne Hellgren Staykov, Paul Carey Jones, Rachel Chapman, Rachel Harland, Richard Morrison, Richard Suart, Simon Butteriss, Timothy Ochala-Greenough