Sir Arthur Sullivan: Songs sung by Mary Bevan, Ben Johnson and Ashley Riches

Our rating 
3.0 out of 5 star rating 3.0

LABELS: Chandos
WORKS: Songs: including Sigh no more, ladies; Orpheus with his Lute; O mistress mine; The Willow Song; Where the bee sucks, etc
PERFORMER: Mary Bevan (soprano), Ben Johnson (tenor), Ashley Riches (bass-baritone), David Owen Norris (piano)


Thirty-nine Sullivan songs spread over two discs: for such a Victorian cornucopia it would have been helpful if the booklet had placed this repertoire in context, Savoy operas and all. As it is, the notes by the project’s begetter and enthusiastic accompanist, David Owen Norris, deal mostly in minor details, leaving the listener to sink or swim as Shakespeare settings give way to drawing-room ballads, period exotica, and the curious The Window, a game attempt to create a song cycle from very weak verses by Tennyson.

That set falls to Ben Johnson, most eloquent of the singers, despite the bald spot in his tone whenever Sullivan asks for a taxing leap. Their lyrics might be drivel, but Johnson obviously means every word. And we can hear him clearly; rarely the case with Mary Bevan, whose voice is often prim, thin, and fuzzy. But at least that doesn’t prevent a beautiful song like Bird in the Night being a beacon of charm.

Ashley Riches almost matches Johnson in the open display of emotion. As for Norris, placed slightly forward in the sound mix, he never persuades us that Sullivan’s accompaniments are as meaningful as Schubert’s (an obvious model). Yet he knows plenty about period style, varying speeds so that O Mistress Mine never rattles like an express train. And Sullivan’s melodic gift is everywhere, even when a song’s period furniture threatens to swallow it up.

Interesting listening, then, though the repertoire could have been better presented, and in some cases better sung.


Geoff Brown