COLERIDGE-TAYLOR: Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast, Op. 30; DVORAK: Symphonic Variations, Op. 78 – Richard Lewis, tenor/ Royal Choral Society/ Philharmonia Orch./ Sir Malcolm Sargent – IDIS 6672, 53:56 [Distr. by Allegro] ****:
Inspired by the poem of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912) decided to set music for tenor and chorus as a cantata in 1898. The world premier – which Sir Arthur Sullivan promised to attend, even if it meant his death – was led by Sir Charles Villiers Stanford at the Royal College of Music. Sir Hubert Parry claimed the premier as “one of the most remarkable events in modern English musical history.” Sir Malcolm Sargent (1895-1967), noted for his success with large choral forces, championed the work as early as 1930. Richard Lewis (1914-1990) often performed the tenor solo as an independent work as part of his ongoing repertory.
Several musical scholars declare that a revival of interest in Coleridge-Taylor’s music is warranted, “since it is well and skillfully written and carries important messages of racial self-respect and religious conviction.” Dr. William Tortolano, professor of music at Saint Michael’s College in Vermont, has written a biography of Coleridge-Taylor and edited some of his music for publication, including “Lift Up Your Heads.” The composer, he says, “was fond of strong, clear-cut rhythms which are often repeated. Warmth of melody and abundant color are nearly always features. . . He had a fine sense of tone color and a fascination with words. . . He leaned to solid chords, attractively picturesque changes of key, and vivid dynamic contrasts. He had a fine sense of the effective climax.” The 1962 performance from a studio inscription has clear sonics, but it is best to follow the poem visually to appreciate the message of the words. Lewis is in clear, resonant voice, his calling-card that made him a favorite of conductors like Beecham and Reiner.
Dvorak composed his Symphonic Variations between August and September 1877, and he quickly sent the score to Hans Richter who declared it an immediate success. Brahms, after having heard the score, presented Dvorak with the gift of a new cigar-holder. The tune derives from a folk ditty, “I am a fiddler,” that Dvorak included in three unaccompanied male part-songs from 1877. In a rather playful epithet, Dvorak wrote “assembled and entangled by Antonin Dvorak” at the head of his manuscript for the theme and twenty-seven variations. We can hear the influence of Dvorak’s specific serenades for strings and winds, respectively, as well as his penchant for solo violin writing. The last of the numbered variants in a rather coy tip-toe in winds and strings becomes the basis for a learned fugue in the manner of idol Brahms or Slavic contemporary Tchaikovsky. That Dvorak then converts the “academic” form into a lovely polka for a rousing finale should come as no surprise. The transfer of Sargent’s 1959 performance proves sonically reliable, despite the essentially “pirate” nature of IDIS, which uses LPs rather than tape masters for its reissues. The ever-genial Sargent, after all, does have at his command the Philharmonia Orchestra, at that time – with Beecham’s Royal Philharmonic – the most virtuosic of British ensembles.