Irish Symphony; Pineapple Poll
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As Sir Charles Mackerras writes in the booklet notes, the idea of transforming 'the eminently danceable tunes' of the Gilbert and Sullivan comic operas into a ballet score occurred to him while he was playing in the orchestra for a Gilbert and Sullivan se
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This CD also includes one of Sullivan's more "serious" works, his early "Irish Symphony." Sullivan hoped to be a symphonist and only wrote music for the stage only as a means of earning a living. This recording seems to perform the work as well as it can be, but it's a somewhat generic piece and most likely, listeners will probably agree his stage works demonstrate his true gifts and genius, are stronger than his orchestral output, and show more originality than the "Irish Symphony." Still, it is a work that has its enjoyable moments, particularly the third and fourth movements. I would doubt that this recording will catapult it into the repertoire of most major orchestras, but it is a novelty piece to include in a music library.
Certainly, "Pineapple Poll" is an excellent confection in the style of "Gaite Parisienne." It may even be finer than what Manuel Rosenthal did for the music of Offenbach. Nicely stitched together from familiar and unfamiliar Sullivan (the finale, which uses the stately music from "Yeoman of the Guards" and the very balletic music from "Overture di Ballo" is a grand finale indeed) and colorfully orchestrated, it is fail-safe stuff. The Symphony, on the other hand, a hit at its premiere at the Crystal Palace in 1866, hasn't faired so well in critical or popular circles since the 19th century.
I think the main problem is the first movement, a long sonata-form affair with a too-long, slow introduction that obviously mimics the first movement of Mendelssohn's Scottish Symphony and doesn't do it well. The overall effect is rather sullen no matter what the conductor does to redeem it, lacking the tension (and fine first melody) of Mendelssohn's comparable movement. The second movement of Sullivan's Symphony, though indebted again to Mendelssohn, is pleasant enough. But the third movement, unconventional in form and with a jaunty little march theme on the oboe (giving it a properly rustic feel) instead of the typical scherzo dash of Mendelssohn or Schumann, has elicited praise from the get-go. And the last movement, the real Irish payoff, does something that many Romantic composers fail to do in their symphonic finales: keep things moving. It has not only a couple of very nice folk-like melodies but a pretty good working out of same, and Sullivan builds real momentum before a big coda, with dissonant brass comments, that reminds me of the coda of Dvorak's Fifth Symphony, written about nine years later.
So if you give the Irish Symphony a chance, it does have something to say, especially at the close. This reading from Lloyd-Jones and the Royal Liverpool has all the requisite elan in the finale and makes all the right moves elsewhere, capturing very nicely the Victorian high-mindedness and high-spiritedness of the score. The engineering is typical of the excellent work Naxos does in the British Isles. Altogether, I find this an entertaining presentation of both pieces and will return to the Symphony as often as to the ballet.
There has been, of course, a marvelous recording of 'Pineapple Poll' conducted by Mackerras himself, who not long after devising the ballet began a long and illustrious career as a world-class conductor. That recording is now forty years old and although this new recording does not have quite the exhilarating verve of Mackerras's, it is in sparkling modern sound. Included in the booklet are fascinating notes by Mackerras from the original EMI release and are, obviously, from the horse's mouth, so to speak. His notes include a synopsis of the ballet which points our where in the G&S canon the various melodies come from; it could have been a bit more specific, but it is helpful nonetheless.
Sullivan, an Englishman of Irish descent, wrote his 'Irish' Symphony in E in 1863 at age 21 just after he had finished his musical education at the Royal Academy of Music and the Leipzig Conservatory. He started it while vacationing in northern Ireland but frankly it doesn't sound particularly Irish, to me at least. It was premiered at the Crystal Palace in 1866 to great acclaim. It achieved fair popularity in the years following but has been generally ignored for the past century. It is a Mendelssohnian work, full of gentle melodies, immaculate construction and, to be honest, dull earnestness. It is good to hear it -- it has, however, been recorded before by Mackerras and Richard Hickox -- but it does not bid fair to enter the general symphonic repertoire. No, the main reason to get this CD is for this modern recording of 'Pineapple Poll.'