Monday, 30 July 2012

The Music of Lionel Monckton: An Excellent Introduction

The Monckton Album
Lionel MONCKTON (1861-1923) 
La Cingalee (1904) 
The Arcadians (1909) 
Quaker Girl (1910) 
Pirjo Levandi (sop), Jeanne Servchenco (sop), Mariliina von Uexküll (sop), Julie Lill (cont), 
Oliver Kuusik (ten), Annika Tonuri (mezzo sop), Mart Sander (bar) 
Chorus and Bel-Etage orchestra/Mart Sander 
DIVINE ART 2-4110 [69:08]

I first heard Lionel Monckton’s music many years ago – it was the enchanting ‘Charming Weather’ from The Arcadians, which is included in this excellent retrospective of the composer’s music. Many years later, I came across the Overture to the same opera – this was issued on ASV as one of the series of British Light Overtures conducted by Gavin Sutherland.  I have to confess that I have never gotten around to hearing the entire operetta.  However, there are a couple of well-regarded editions currently available. It is a project for the future.
The present CD includes a generous selection from three of the composer’s best-known works: Cingalee, The Arcadians and The Quaker Girl.

A brief note about Lionel John Alexander Monckton may be of interest He was born in London in 1861. His father Sir John was a town clerk and his mother Maria was an ‘amateur’ actress. After studying at Charterhouse School and Oriel College, Oxford he pursued a career as a lawyer. However, he turned to music and began to write songs and review operas.  Soon Monckton turned his hand to writing theatre scores, in particular for the Gaiety Theatre and its director George Edwardes. Successes (apart from the three highlighted on this CD) included The Spring Chicken, Our Miss Gibbs, The Girls of Gottenberg, A Country Girl and The Dancing Mistress.
After the Great War, he refused to reinvent his compositional style to include jazz, ragtime and other American dance music. After contributing some numbers for the then-popular revues, he gave up composing.  Lionel Monckton died in 1923 London, aged 62.
The format of this CD is interesting. Most ‘selections’ from operas and operettas tend to reflect the batting order of the score/libretto.  In this present CD Mart Sander has decided to order the numbers so as to provide a continuous, but always satisfying and attractive ‘narrative-less’ presentation of the music. The plot of each operetta is largely irrelevant to this CD; however, a few observations may not go amiss.

Cingalee or Sunny Ceylon dates from 1904.  The action takes place in Harry Vereker’s Tea Plantation and in Boobhamba palace.  It concerns a young lady who resists the attention of the potentate and who wishes to remain a tea-girl.’  The music is attractive, however the plot seems weak and there are certain sentiments that may have been appropriate in colonial days but no logger seem quite so witty. However the music is consistently good.
The Arcadians (1910) is Monckton’s best-known work.  The plot revolves round innocent folk from a faraway land who are ‘infected’ by a crashed aviator who introduces ugliness, lies and jealously to these happy people. The Arcadians are appalled by the stories of London life and decide to visit the city themselves.  Fortunately, all ends up happily – with the aviator back in ‘The Smoke’ and the Arcadians in their paradise.
Finally, there is The Quaker Girl, which was first heard at the Adelphi Theatre, London on 5th Novemeber 1910. It concerns the dichotomy between a dour Quaker community with the high-life of Parisian society. Its most famous number was 'Come to the Ball'.   The ‘girl’ eventually ends up in the USA with her admirer Tony Chute.

The general musical sound world of Monckton is ‘sub’ Sullivan. This does not mean that the music is second rate or lacks craftsmanship – simply that the style and the plots owe something to the genius of G&S. Occasionally, there are ‘patter songs’: for example the fine ‘Back your Fancy’ from The Arcadians. What is typically lacking is the wit and subtlety of the earlier duo. Yet the music is full of attractive tunes, evocative, if retro, sentiments in the librettos and a good balance between solo, ensemble and chorus. There is a sense of fun from virtually the first note to the last.

Divine Arts Recording Group has made a major contribution to British Light Opera with this fine exploration of Lionel Monckton’s music. I noted in an earlier review of the same group’s release of Herman Finck’s music that they have managed ‘to capture the mood and the spirit of the Edwardian and Georgian times’. Other reviewers have noted the ‘Germanic’ and ‘Michigan’ accents as opposed to that of ‘Mayfair in the performance of these numbers. However, true as this may be, it is a trifling matter. The enunciation, clarity and mood are near-perfect. Besides, my ‘Estonian’ is not so dusty.

The performers, led by Mart Sander are all members of the Bel-Etage Theatre in Tallinn, which was itself an old music hall.  In addition, let us not forget the orchestra who make such an important contribution to the success oft his disc.

I was delighted by the sound quality of this CD: the ambiance is ideally suited to this kind of music. The CD liner notes include the texts of all the number recorded, alongside the briefest of synopses of each operetta. One small point – I found the text difficult to read –in both size and the fact that some of it is printed on a blue background.   

I was recently reading Alan Hyman’s Sullivan & his Satellites where he outlines the achievements of a large number of lesser mortals than G&S.  These include, Sidney Jones, Edward German, Frederic Clay and (although not specifically noted there) Montague Phillips. Surely all these composers have material that would be grist to the mill for this outstanding ensemble? 
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.

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