Arthur Sullivan’s oratorio The Light of the World was premiered at the Birmingham Musical Festival on 27 August 1873. Sullivan conducted and the new work was met with an extremely enthusiastic reception. Favourable commentary was made by other composers such as Gounod and performers such as Clara Butt. The work remained popular for several decades.
This premiere recording finally allows reappraisal (there was a performance in Liverpool in 2000 that was recorded but not released). The booklet comes with full text and there is an excellent and very informative essay about the work and its then-novel aspects. These include Sullivan opting to focus on Jesus’s human qualities in his life on Earth, having him and others communicate their feelings, motivations and emotions directly – almost operatically. Thus we don’t have a setting that concentrates solely on the Nativity, the Passion and the Resurrection, but have only elements of these shared with glimpses from other biblical episodes such as the illness and death of Lazarus and the journey to Jerusalem.
Sullivan’s music is very much of its time. One can sense how it aims, and frequently succeeds, in heightening the emotion of the Bible-derived text while displaying an undeniable religiosity of approach derived unmistakeably from the English Cathedral and Choral tradition: Stanford never seems that far away! One can appreciate how that must have reached the sensibilities of people of the Victorian era. It is always listenable, and although there are influences of Mendelssohn and others, possibly even Wagner (there’s a Lohengrin-like passage in the first few minutes although that opera was to receive its belated UK premiere two years later), Sullivan’s individual and often endearing compositional voice does emerge. Those expecting to hear music akin to the Savoy Operas still to come (Trial by Jury was premiered in 1875) will find this lacking for the most part – although the Shepherds of the Nativity do have an entertainingly jolly chorus near the start.
The recording is spacious, and generally the soundscape catches both chorus and orchestra though the former dominates at the big moments, occasionally masking orchestral detail although one does get the interplay of the vocal parts with great clarity, and the spirited singing of the choral forces communicates the text with distinction.
The solo singers are a fine grouping. Natalya Romaniw, with her burnished tonal quality, is the most operatic-sounding of the ladies, singing with great intensity whilst Kitty Whately makes the announcements of the Angel empathetic and vivid. Ben McAteer’s smoothly lyrical baritone sounds well, and, critically, he manages to evince obvious humanity. Robert Murray’s mellifluous tones are heard to advantage, especially at the striking and beautiful opening of the ‘Lazarus’ episode. Eleanor Dennis sings an affecting Martha and certainly makes “Lord, why hidest thou thy face?” a dramatic climax. Neal Davies offers grittily authoritative cameos as A Pharisee and A Ruler.
For John Andrews this is clearly a labour of some love. He makes a good argument for this reappraisal of The Light of the World which has not always had favourable commentary. His tempos are appropriate and persuasively place the work in the tradition that would eventually lead through to Elgar and beyond. At the same time Andrews boldly asserts the Victoriana of the work.
An important recording, then, and a must for enthusiasts wishing to explore lesser-known reaches of Sullivan’s output.