“Entertaining Miss Austen: Newly Discovered Music from Jane Austen’s Family Collection” – Sop. & bar./ David Owen Norris, piano – Dutton

by | Jan 3, 2012 | Classical CD Reviews

“Entertaining Miss Austen: Newly Discovered Music from Jane Austen’s Family Collection” [TrackList follows] – Amanda Pitt, soprano/ John Lofthouse, baritone/ David Owen Norris, piano – Dutton Epoch CDLX 7271 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi], 73:55 **:
This program draws on seventeen music albums that belonged to Jane Austin and her family, including nine that have only recently come to light, launching an investigation of the entire collection by scholars at the University of Southampton. Such an investigation will undoubtedly produce several scholarly tomes that will fuel interest among students and admirers of Miss Austin. Just so, this spinoff recording may attract interest and admiration among Austin’s more enthusiastic fans. Being a modest fan whose interest here is primarily musical, I’m sorry to report that learning what pieces the Austin family savored circa 1800 does not translate to an especially satisfying musical feast.
Expectedly, the music skews toward the sentimental, dallying with stock themes of the early Romantic era, such as sympathy for the common folk and an attraction to exotic locales. However, like just about all the music on the disc, the exotic is translated into such a cultured Westernized style as to be rendered altogether toothless: we have the world’s tamest Fandango from a bluestocking composer named Ann Thicknesse, plus an African Song and a Hindoo Song that might just as easily be a Scottish song and an Isle of Wight song, for all that they conjure up distant climes.
Famous and not so famous composers of the eighteenth and early nineteenth century are represented: Handel, Haydn, Johann Baptist Cramer, James Hook, and Stephen Storace. It’s admittedly interesting to hear the work of Hook and Storace, important composers for the stage in their day, especially since next to nothing of the very popular Storace’s music survives. On the other hand, it’s not possible to form an impression of the general quality of the music of either composer based on the slight examples offered here. Maybe the most imposing music, sounding almost out of place in this company, is the anonymous but skillful arrangement of the overture to Handel’s opera Rodelinda. And as with the other songs that Haydn penned while in England, his setting of “She Never Told Her Love” from Twelfth Night is obviously lighter fare created by a master: the long arresting piano introduction and the skillful use of harmony to build tension are well beyond the modest skills of most of the composers and arrangers represented here.
The performers all try to get into the spirit of the early nineteenth century in England and so cultivate an appropriate style of delivery just shy of the maudlin—and sometimes taking a decided excursion into the maudlin. Among the three musicians, I enjoy most the sprightly pianism of David Owen Norris, who seems game for any of this music, no matter how compositionally threadbare. I also like John Lofthouse’s light lilting tenor; it’s suited to the hail-fellow-well-met music of James Hook and Michael Kelly. For me, the considerable fly in the ointment is soprano Amanda Pitt, whose voice is not particularly lovely to begin with, especially in its lower register, and whose cloying vibrato tends to emphasize the dull middlebrow quality of the music. The composers may have had pretentions to musical seriousness, but most of these pieces sound like slightly elevated pop music, just as relevant 200 years down the line as Beyoncé or Josh Groban will be.
Appropriately, the program was recorded in the intimate space of the Music Room at Hatchlands, Surrey, prominently pictured on the back of the CD booklet. But did the engineers strip the room of every bit of sound-absorbing material, or did they simply go with what they had to work with there? Whichever, the results are achingly chilly, totally uninviting. Jane Austin lovers may find more to love here than I do, but for me this is a nearly empty musical experience. Sorry.
Fairy Dance (arr. Mattias Holst)
She never told her love (Joseph Haydn) words: Shakespeare
One half o’ the world (James Hook) words: Charles Dibdin
Waly waly (Anon) words: Anon.
|Crazy Jane (Harriet Abrams) words: M. Lewis
Robin Adair (George Kiallmark)
Captivity (Stephen Storace) words: The Rev’d. Mr. Jeans
Que j’aime à voir les hirondelles (Anon.) words: Anon.
Fandango (Ann Thicknesse)
Queen Mary’s Lamentation (Tommaso Giordani) words: Anon
Song from Burns (Anon.) words: Robert Burns
African Song (G. G. Ferrari) words: Georgiana Cavendish
Hindoo Song (Edward Smith Biggs) words: Amelia Alderson Opie
Overture to Rodelinda (Handel, arr. Anon.)
The Irishman (Anon) words: possibly Charles Dibdin
The Wife’s Farewell (Michael Kelly) words: M. G. Lewis
The Husband’s Return (Michael Kelly) words: probably M. G. Lewis
Nobody coming to marry me (Anon.) words: Anon †
Favorite Song from The Stranger (Georgiana Cavendish) words: R. B. Sheridan
The Whim of the Day (James Hook) words: Charles Dibdin
Les petits riens (J. B. Cramer)
—Lee Passarella

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