Edwardian musical comedy has not aged well. Despite its composers' often-skilful marriage of operetta aesthetics with the hardy tunes and themes of music hall, the genre consistently fails to find favour in contemporary society. In stark contrast to the still wildly popular Savoy Operas that it grew out of, and the American and British musical comedies that grew out of it, Edwardian musical theatre has only received quite localised academic and canonical resuscitation.
But it is possible to see in the genre the formation of much of the foundational standards and practices of American musical theatre. Tropes include: the division of labour between composer, author and lyricist; the inclusion of popular styles and vernacular turns of phrase; the lack of importance of narrative and musical integration; and the emergence of an urban personality that clashed with the Ruritanian and rural contexts of G & S. Much of the music moreover retains a certain vitality, and it can often communicate a sense of Belle Epochal moment that retains a glamour of sorts for the modern listener.
The new release from Hyperion that focuses on some of the most enduringly famous songs of the genre, all from the mind of its most enduringly famous composer Lionel Monckton, should thus be welcomed. The disc, with Catherine Bott and a charming Richard Suart accompanied by the New London Orchestra and Light Opera Chorus under Ronald Corp, collects together 22 of Monckton's best songs, mainly taken from his most famous comedies, with a couple of numbers that originated as interpolations in shows from other men. The selection is well judged, with The Arcadians, A Country Girl, The Quaker Girl, and Our Miss Gibbs all being well represented. No one show dominates proceedings as might have been expected in the case of the still popular Arcadians and we get a good sense of the flavour of each play.
As will be clear, dramatic and authorial integration was not a prime concern to the practitioners of the genre, so a diffuse recital such as this one does not pose as much of a problem as it can do in the context of opera. But the variety of styles and characters that should emerge out of such a venture never quite materialise. Despite the performers best efforts, homogeneity is the abiding effect. The songs are almost relentlessly buoyant, diatonic (even minor chords only get a look in on passing beats and in very localised cadences), and four square. Bott does share some nice lyric moments with us where her often too polished phrasing and intonation find the right pitch of yearning bel canto control, for example in Under the Deodar from A Country Girl. But apart from these interludes, the sprightly, formally rigid numbers just keep coming. They are wonderfully tuneful yes, and are performed with a nicely idiomatic sense of communal occasion and bluster by the orchestra and chorus, but one can never quite get over the feeling that Monckton had a tendency to write by the numbers. Verses are followed by refrains, which are then repeated in unison with the chorus and emphatic percussion. Even the orchestration falls prey to formula. The strings take almost all of the ritornello-like episodes (the melodies of which are usually taken from the verse melodies) that we find in most of the numbers, and a tendency to double voices with strings or wind is prevalent. Percussion is perfunctory and rhetorical, and the brass doesn't get much of a look in. The performers thus have quite a hard task to overcome the monotony that is inscribed into the music.
The relish with which Suart attacks each number, and the clarity of his diction and lithe looseness of his phrasing display a confidence that does much to counter any negativity one might feel in response to the rote feel of the music. Though he and Bott never quite communicate enough variety to convince us they are ever playing anything but the one character (with Bott's cheerful Yorkshire 'Mary' being a nice exception), in the case of Suart especially it never matters quite so much. His powerful control and projection throughout his broad register consistently impresses, and he has a particular way with lyrics that always charms. He tackles the light comic idiom of his songs with a refreshing and engaging charisma, and is a fine foil for the more remonstrative appeal of Catherine Bott.
To pick over the details of composition such as I previously did is perhaps a little harsh in repertoire such as this. The songs do what is asked of them (as popular entertainment), and they do it with great skill. The lyrics (often by the composer himself) are mischievous and playful, and Monckton clearly had a wonderful ear for melody that one can credibly compare to Arthur Sullivan himself. The sheer joy that the performers communicate in songs like 'Beautiful Bountiful Bertie', 'All Down Piccadilly' and the delightful duet between Bott and Suart 'Two Little Sausages' will be clear to even those who think themselves immune to the genre. To those who fall outside that remit, I can heartily recommend this recording as a positive, if a little uniform, act of retrieval for a composer and genre that surely deserve more recognition, and consideration.