Sullivan: Symphony in E (Irish); Suite from The Tempest; In memoriam

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Sullivan
LABELS: Chandos
WORKS: Symphony in E (Irish); Suite from The Tempest; In memoriam
PERFORMER: BBC Philharmonic/Richard Hickox
CATALOGUE NO: CHAN 9859
No one would really regret Arthur Sullivan’s transformation into half of G&S, but how much of a ‘serious’ composer he might otherwise have become is a perennially fascinating question. The E major Symphony from his early twenties is a splendid work in its way: almost (if not quite) as good as Bizet’s youthful symphony which it somewhat resembles, certainly a spirited effort for a young Englishman composing before Brahms and Tchaikovsky had got into their stride. If it’s rather Mendelssohnian that’s only to be expected in the England of the 1860s, and because it’s consciously an ‘Irish’ Symphony in the way that Mendelssohn’s Third is his ‘Scottish’.

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What emerges strongly in this enjoyable disc, however, is how much more than Mendelssohn there was in Sullivan’s make-up. The In memoriam overture, before it loses its plot in over-the-top sententiousness, organ and all, is practically Schumannesque, with shades of Manfred. Most fascinating of all, Sullivan’s official Op. 1, his incidental music to Shakespeare’s Tempest written at the age of 18 under the immediate impression of hearing Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream music, proves less Mendelssohnian than proto-Wagnerian in the larger scene-setting pieces, while the charming dance numbers look forward already to the Savoy operas.

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Hickox directs first-rate performances, full of colour and rhythmic life, in a nicely resonant acoustic that suits the young Sullivan’s astonishing orchestral skill. The Symphony comes over as a livelier and more characterful work than in Groves’s long-established EMI recording; the CPO rival is hardly in the running. Calum MacDonald