GMCD 7359 – Michael William Balfe – Songs and Ballads Rediscovered

Sally Silver (soprano), Richard Bonynge (piano)

To the CD in our Shop

The Delius Society – April 2012

None of these songs are familiar, and Come into the Garden, Maud fromBalfe’s selections from the Tennyson cycle is not among them. The program is dedicated to the memory of Dame Joan Sutherland (1926-2010), Bonynge’s wife. There is a good bio of Balfe, a prolific opera composer and singer himself, and full texts of the songs. Sally Silver sings these nicley, but I think she omits the third verse of Those we love. One of the cute songs is I’m a merry zingara. While full texts are provided there is no English translation from the French for Le Crépuscule. Good sound overall.

Gramophone – October 2011

Charm is the order of the day in this Selection of Balfe’s ballads
The days are long gone when Victorian ballads; could expect to arouse wide attention. Yet things have surely gone too far when such a prime example of the genre as Balfe’s “Killarney” can be found only in vintage recordings by the likes of John McCormack. A warm welcome, then, for this new collection, which includes 17 other examples of Balfe’s easy lyricism, none of which duplicates the contents of a 2008 collection of Balfe ballads issued by Victorian Opera. The whole genre may not represent high art, of course, and what we have here includes such poetic efforts as Alfred Bunn’s “O smile as thou wert wont to smile” (from the opera The Daughter of St Mark), which Punch lampooned mercilessly in the 1840s.
However, other numbers such as “I’m a merry Zingara” and “The Blighted Flower” were highly popular in their day and well deserve a hearing now. Sally Silver sounds a little twee in the opening “Ah! Would that I could love thee less” and elsewhere she might have benefited from a shade more expression. Far better that, though, than that the expression be exaggerated. Moreover, her charming soprano falls more comfortably on the ear than the voices on that Victorian Opera collection (though the latter is better documented). Charm is very much the order of the day here, and is displayed no less admirably in Richard Bonynge’s devoted piano accompaniment. It’s good news indeed to hear that there’s a William Vincent Wallace collection to follow.
Andrew Lamb

Musicweb International – September 2011

The phenomenal popularity, well into the 20th century, of Balfe’s opera “The Bohemian Girl” ensured that his music was well to the fore in musical drawing-rooms and parlours throughout the British Dominions. Pride of place went to numerous arias from the celebrated opera itself, plus “The Light of Other Days” from “The Maid of Artois”. But immensely successful, too, were many of his 250-odd songs and ballads. The most famous of all, “Come into the garden, Maud”, was not obviously not suitable for a soprano programme. Of the songs here, “Killarney”, was not far behind it in popularity.
Balfe did not generally seek literary merit in the texts he set. Several here are by unidentified poets. If their names are not on the score they are probably untraceable at this distance of time. Others are by habitual opera librettists of the day such as Bunn and Fitzball. One poet of a certain stature who attracted him was Longfellow. Just one example is given here –“The green trees whispered low and mild”. This angle might profitably have been explored further.
Like his Italian contemporaries Donizetti and Bellini, Balfe did not generally seek to make a ballad sound anything other than a spare operatic aria. The piano parts frequently sound as though transcribed from an orchestral source and the melodic lines suggest elegiac cavatinas with the odd lively cabaletta here and there. While it has yet to be proved that Balfe, as an operatic composer, had the range and dramatic flair of Donizetti and Bellini at their best, as a melodist he found his niche. If Donizetti and Bellini tend to sing of love and its complications, the abiding tone of Balfe is that of nostalgia. A famous passage in Joyce’s “Dubliners” tells of a domestic rendering of “I dreamt that I dwelt”, sung “in a tiny quavering voice”:
“…when she had ended her song Joe was much moved. He said that there was no time like the long ago and no music for him like poor old Balfe, whatever other people might say; and his eyes filled up so much with tears that he could not find what he was looking for and in the end he had to ask his wife to tell him where the corkscrew was.” (James Joyce: Dubliners, Clay).
If Joyce was taking issue with his countrymen’s more sentimental side, he was also grudgingly admitting that Balfe had mined a seam that ran deep in the Irish character. A seam that had been sung very sweetly by Thomas Moore, was largely sidestepped by Stanford and was ennobled by Yeats into a yearning for a legendary Celtic past. A seam that is not confined to Irishmen, of course. Given a voice that can charge the long, languorous lines with the right pathos, Balfe will perhaps never strike our profounder emotions, but he can nevertheless be infinitely touching. And there’s the rub. If the performances are not such as to have you reaching for your glass, wiping a misty eye and reflecting that the best times were the past times and no one sang them like Balfe, then the only place for the record is the bin.
So I’m afraid the only place for this record is the bin. It’s not, I’m inclined to think, the fault of the singer. Sally Silver actually has a lovely voice, light but even and easily produced, more gold than silver. The words are reasonably clear. But there is no attempt to charge the line with emotion, to involve the listener, to give meaning to the music. I see that Silver has sung a wide range of operatic roles including Donizetti’s Lucia and Verdi’s Gilda and Violetta. Quite frankly, I can’t believe that she sings an aria such as “Addio del passato” with such a light side-stepping of the emotions as she does these pieces. I don’t suggest that Balfe can ever be made to bear the emotional weight of Verdi at his most inspired, but at least give him what he’s got!
But, if Silver had any doubts, would she have tried to argue the toss with the great Richard Bonynge? For the superficial approach stems, I fear, from him. The introduction to each song sets the tone, and he invariably sets no tone at all, just sliding unconcernedly over the notes. His phrasing is all too often bumpy and uneven, moreover – hear the beginning of “Killarney” – so the performances are not even good according to their own lights. Scores are hard to come by, but Boosey’s “Royal Edition” of “O smile as thou wert wont to smile” (aka “We may be happy yet”) is marked “Larghetto cantabile” and the tempo here sounds like an “Allegretto” to me. It jogs along happily, apparently unaware of the sorrows of which it speaks. “The green trees whispered” tells a similar tale. So, I am sure, do all the other nostalgic ones – the ones you really go to Balfe for – even if I haven’t scores with which to quote chapter and verse. Of course, there are lighter songs, about gypsies and merry little Savoyards, that come off better, but even these might have been characterized more fully. In any case, these are the makeweights in a Balfe programme, put there not so much for their own sake but because an hour of unremitting nostalgia would be too much.
A chapter of missed opportunities, then. And if you must get it whatever I say, keep the corkscrew well out of reach, or you’ll be in for a nasty bout of lonely drinking as the expected friend fails to turn up.
Christopher Howell
A chapter of missed opportunities. Balfe’s voice just isn’t here. – August 2011

Der Ire Michael William Balfe (1808–1870) ist selbst in seiner britischen Heimat nicht unbedingt ein Komponist, an den man sich gut erinnert. Dabei war sein ‘Bohemian Girl’ (London 1843) einer der ganz großen europäischen Opernerfolge des 19. Jahrhunderts. Die den Moden der Zeit folgende Zigeuneroper war nicht sein einziger, jedoch sein nachhaltigster Erfolg. Richard Bonynge hat die Oper Anfang der 1990er Jahre eingespielt. Der junge Balfe verkehrte in Italien und Frankreich mit Größen wie Cherubini und Rossini, hatte zunächst eine Karriere als Sänger und sang unter anderem an der Mailänder Scala (an der Seite der Malibran) den Otello Rossinis. Seinen Durchbruch als Opernkomponist hatte er dann Mitte der 1830er Jahre in London. Unter seinen über 30 Opern ist auch ein ‘Falstaff’, der erst kürzlich vom Irischen Rundfunk wieder entdeckt und aufgenommen wurde.
Songs & Ballads Richard Bonynge hat sich immer wieder Balfes angenommen. Auch die jetzt beim Schweizer Label Guild erschienene CD mit achtzehn ‚Songs and Ballads‘ geht auf seine Initiative zurück. Es ist eine Auswahl aus den über 250 Liedern Balfes, die größtenteils in London entstanden und in englischer Sprache vertont sind. Die typischen Texte (sie sind in im Beiheft abgedruckt) beschäftigen sich mit den zeittypischen Themen, die in den Salons des viktorianischen Englands Mode waren: hoffende Herzen, fragende Liebe, Lob der Freundschaft, Landschaftslyrik, besungene Rosen, ländliche Idylle und dergleichen mehr.
Die südamerikanische Sopranistin Sally Silver ist die Interpretin dieser wieder entdeckten Lieder. Die Ausdrucksmöglichkeiten ihrer Stimme sind den Liedern absolut angemessen, ja machen sie jeweils zu eigenständigen Miniaturen. Mit klarer, jugendlich-unbekümmerter Lyrik beginnt sie M. J. Andrews schwärmerisches ‘Ah! Would that I could love thee less’, das die CD eröffnet. Eine Mischung aus Charme und Bestimmtheit gelingt ihr in ‘O smile as thou wert wont to smile’ auf eine Text Alfred Burns. Ihr sicher geführter, heller Sopran beeindruckt durch mit einer klaren Phrasierung, die zu farbreichen Schattierungen fähig ist. Das reicht von intimen Liebesworten bis hin zu der tänzerisch akzentuierten Erzählung von ‘I’m a merry Zingara’. In den unteren Registern gewinnt die Stimme eine angenehme Wärme, ausgeglichen sind ihre bruchlos geführten Register; beides exemplarisch im französischen Chanson ‘Le Crépescule’ auf einen Text de Lamartines zu verfolgen. Wie groß Sally Silvers Ausdruckspalette ist, zeigt ein Vergleich der Tennysons-Vertonung ‘Falling River’, der in ihrer Interpretation die Simplizität eines ‚folk tune‘ erhält und des stets schlicht bleibenden, vorwärts drängenden Liebeswunsches des die CD beschließenden ‘Oh take me to thy heart again’.
Richard Bonynge begleitet kongenial am historischen Piano mit genauem, unprätentiösen Anschlag, wenn es darum geht harmonische Stütze zu sein und rhythmischen Akzente in den lebendigeren Passagen. Immer wieder blitzen kleine Nebengedanken oder Echos in der Begleitung auf, jedoch nur, um die Songs zu illustrieren, die Melodielinie weiter zu führen. Der Stimme gewährt Bonynge dabei jedoch stets den Vortritt. Das gemeinsame Musizieren ist mit den sensiblen Reaktionen beider Interpreten in idealer Weise gelungen.
Das Booklet gibt einen Überblick zu Balfes Leben und Schaffen, auf die Lieder wird dabei leider nicht explizit eingegangen. Dennoch: die CD, die in überzeugendem, womöglich die Atmosphäre eines viktorianischen Salons als Vorbild habenden Klangbild daherkommt, ist ein angenehm überraschendes Hörerlebnis. In dieser Qualität würde man sich die Begegnung mit Balfes Liedern gerne auch einmal im Konzertsaal wünschen. Und Sally Silver sollte man auf jeden Fall im Auge behalten.
Frank Fechter

New – June 2011

Michael William Balfe was born Dublin, Ireland, in 1808, at 10 Pitt Street, which in 1917 was renamed Balfe Street. He was the son of a dancing schoolmaster, William Balfe, and showed exceptional musical ability from an early age. He took violin and music lessons with violinist James Barton and composer William Rooke, and at the age of nine the child prodigy played violin at a concert in Dublin’s Rotunda Concert Rooms. After a short career as a violinist, Balfe became an opera singer and began to compose. In a career spanning more than 40 years, he wrote 38 operas (best-known among them being The Bohemian Girl – the most popular English opera of the nineteenth century), almost 250 songs and other works. Among many conducting posts he was musical director and principal conductor for the Italian Opera at Her Majesty’s Theatre, where he first produced several of Verdi’s operas for London audiences. He conducted for Jenny Lind at her opera debut and on many occasions thereafter. Balfe’s style was largely an international one rather than specifically British or Irish, although his talent for the ballad played particularly well in English opera, both in the theatre and to supply scores for the rapidly burgeoning domestic music market. The composer retired in 1864 to Hertfordshire, where he rented a country estate, and died at his home aged 62. Pianist and acclaimed opera conductor Richard Bonynge has long been an avid collector of nineteenth century songs and ballads, and together with soprano Sally Silver he has recorded some of his collection on this CD of delightful music by Michael William Balfe. Other new Guild releases include PIANO DUETS (GMCD 7370) – music by Liste, Honegger, Schaeuble and Martin stylishly played by gifted young pianists See Siang Wong and Hans Adolfsen. This unique recording of works by four varied composers linked through the country of Switzerland features the rare Grand Sonata by Anton Liste, a contemporary of Beethoven whose music was clearly a strong influence. ORGAN DUETS (GMCD 7368) features music by Mozart, Mendelssohn, Langlais, Tomkins, Carleton and Johnstone played by Charles Harrison and David Leigh at the Organ of Lincoln Cathedral and the Organ in the Retro Choir. The programme spans five centuries and includes Mozart’s famous Fantasia K608, heard here in a new arrangement. Alongside favourites by Carleton, Tomkins, Mendelssohn and Leighton is a world premier recording of Andrew Johnstone’s ‘Shack-up and Feud’, which includes a tango every bit as novel and unusual as the title suggests! CZESLAW MAREK – CHAMBER WORKS & PIANO MUSIC (GMCD 7362/63) showcases the music of an influential Swiss-based Polish composer whose work is adventurous while remaining strongly rooted in tradition, especially of his own Polish ancestry.