This really is a delightful - and, I have to say, fascinating - release. Victorian Opera Northwest have already given listeners interested in the development of British music during the nineteenth century cause for celebration with their Naxos recordings of operas by William Vincent Wallace and George Macfarren*: as far as I am aware the orchestra is not a permanent set-up but a semi-professional outfit of enthusiasts who come together to foster performances and recordings of the sort of neglected repertoire on this disc; Richard Bonynge is their patron. I know that some reviewers were a little dissatisfied by the quality of playing and the size of the orchestra in the opera sets I just referred to, and occasionally their criticisms were not unfounded, but given the choice between hearing those works in generally skillful and most definitely enthusiastic performances and not hearing them at all, I tend towards the view that a couple of small compromises in quality now and then are worth accepting. Happily, unless you expect every orchestra to be the equivalent of the Vienna Philharmonic or its ilk, few - if any - such reservations come into play here and Bonynge elicits excellent responses from the musicians under his baton; indeed, I have heard recordings by professional orchestras whose standards are lamentably lower than those on display here.
The music covers a period of around sixty years, pretty much the Victorian period give or take a year or two at the beginning and end, and is unfailingly melodious and spirited. Contrary to the myth that the British Isles were parochial and isolationist from a musical point of view during this time, all these works to some degree bear witness to a keen awareness of musical fashions on the continent and also, though perhaps to a lesser degree, musical innovations; several of these composers studied and worked in Europe, plus London (not to mention other cities) had a lively and bustling music scene that was frequented by the most celebrated composers and performers of the day. The influence of Weber is not just apparent in the rich scoring and harmonies of Barnett's 'The Mountain Sylph' and Loder's 'The Night Dancers' (which latter also contains some very Mendelssohnian "fairy music" in the strings too) but also in their subject matter; other works nod in the direction of the French and Italian schools (the latter a dominant force in London's opera houses), particularly the music of William Balfe. I wouldn't say that there is anything strikingly original or profound about any of the music here but while it may not challenge the listener today any more than it did the listeners of the nineteenth century, it is all beautifully written and colourfully orchestrated. Possibly not all the operas represented here merit revival in their entirety to the same degree but I feel sure the works of Barnett and Loder, from what I have read about their importance of their output to the development of British opera and after having now actually heard the quality of their music, deserve modern recordings at the very least; Macfarren's overture to 'She Stoops To Conquer' also offers a promising and tantalisingly foretaste of a potentially highly enjoyable score.
The sound quality is generally very good and Somm's production values are excellent: the booklet notes (in English only) offer a discussion of British opera during the period, biographical information on the composers featured and brief synopses of the operas from which these overtures and preludes derive; there are also several colour and monochrome reproductions of composer portraits and illustrations from contemporary publications relating to the music here, all drawn from Richard Bonynge's private collection. This is an important recording, I think, and hopefully one that will prompt reappraisal of this period in British music - recordings of music by Stanford and Parry (among others) have shown that the so-called renaissance in British music did not spring fully-formed like Minerva from Elgar's pen and now perhaps it is time to devote proper attention to the music of the early and mid Romantic periods that preceded them. Who knows what treasures, and not just operatic, still lie hidden and forgotten in archives and libraries?
Gone are the days when Bonynge could have pitched a project like this to Decca and recorded it with the New Philharmonia, ECO or LSO. The Victorian Opera Orchestra turn in spirited performances under Bonynge's experienced direction, but there's no denying that they are stretched to the limit as evinced by patches of scrappy ensemble. I don't wish to make too much of these shortcomings as there are other occasions when their playing is polished and confident.
As for the music, these are effective curtain raisers to long-forgotten operas by British composers known and virtually unknown. Sometimes they sound like early Verdi or Donizetti. At other times, there is no doubting their sturdy British provenance. There is a complete performance by Victorian Opera of Wallace's Lurline on Naxos if the overture included here tickles you fancy. All the works on this CD are enjoyable and well worth hearing. Thanks are due to all concerned for their efforts in making this music available.
Having heard this orchestra before(on Naxos) on being disappointed with both the playing and recording, I hesitated before buying this CD, and only finally made up my mind because of Amazon's ridiculously low price! I need not have worried. The playing of the small orchestra( 6 first violins) is excellent - sounding much like a good Theatre Orchestra of the C19 must have sounded. Recording quality is also clear and well balanced, and the playing time of over 74 minutes generous. So don't hesitate as I did, buy it! The overtures are without exception well worth hearing - melodious and imaginatively scored.