Sunday, April 12, 2015

Sunday Classics snapshots: "Is life a boon?"


Longtime D'Oyly Carte Opera Company principal tenor Thomas Round was not only long gone from the company but, unfortunately, in his late 50s by the time he made the recordings below.
Is life a boon?
If so, it must be befall
that Death, whene'er he call
must call too soon.
Though fourscore year he give,
yet one would wish to live
another moon!
What kind of plaint have I,
who perish in July?
who perish in July?
I might have had to die
perchance in June!
I might have had to die
perchance in June!

Is life a thorn?
Then count it not a whit!
Man is well done with it
soon as he's born.
He should all means essay
to put the plague away,
to put the plague away;
and I, war-worn,
poor captured fugitive,
my life most gladly give.
I might have had to live
another morn!
I might have had to live
another morn!
Revised (standard) version

Thomas Round (t), Col. Fairfax; Gilbert and Sullivan Festival Orchestra, Peter Murray, cond. G and S for All, recorded 1972
Original version

Thomas Round (t), Col. Fairfax; Gilbert and Sullivan Festival Orchestra, Peter Murray, cond. Pearl, recorded in Battersea Town Hall (London), Sept. 12, 1972

by Ken

We'll come back to "Is life a boon?," the song that blossomed from tedium to magnificence when the composer was nudged by his wordsmith partner to start over. But first, let me explain as quickly as possible that it and our other musical snapshot today arise from two convergences:

• While I was waiting for the Museum of the Moving Image screening of Paddy Chayefsky and Delbert Mann's 1957 film The Bachelor Party (an adaptation of their 1953 live-TV version), part of the Matthew Weiner-curated series of films that impacted him in the making of Mad Men, I forced myself to finally finish Ben McGrath's April 13 New Yorker piece on fantasy sports, from which I learned that fantasy sports has pretty well eliminated any connection to the play of sports even as it has exploded all over the place and apparently provided the only reason to live for a lot of people who therefore may be thought to have no reason to live. This was a dangerous convergence because The Bachelor Party depicts a night in the life of five humdrum office mates, where four of them take the fifth out for a bachelor party that unswittingly slipslides into a crossroads that none of them is well-equipped to cope with, at least not without throwing open the question of what meaning or purpose, if any, their lives have.

• And the musical snapshots by that convergence further converged with one of last week's musical snapshots: the tenor's "Ingemisco" from the awesome "Dies irae" of the Verdi Requiem. For me personally, the other peak of Verdi's "Dies irae," the mezzo-soprano's "Liber scriptus proferetur" -- we heard the two together in the April 2011 Sunday Classics post "Verdi blows the lid off the whole Krap Kristian hypocrisy."

So I thought we would just listen again to the three complete performances of the "Liber scriptus" we heard back then -- sung, as I wrote then, by two suitably deep-voiced mezzos (Jard van Nes and Florence Quivar) and a genuine contralto (Lili Chookasian)."(We also heard Ebe Stignani's recording broken into segments.)

VERDI: Requiem: ii. "Dies irae": mezzo-soprano solo, "Liber scriptus proferetur" ("A written book shall be brought forth")
A written book shall be brought forth
in which all is recorded,
whence the world shall be judged.

Therefore, when the Judge shall be seated
nothing shall be held hidden any longer,
no wrong shall remain unpunished.

Jard van Nes (ms); Munich Bach Choir, Frankfurt Singing Academy, Saarbr├╝cken Radio Symphony Orchestra, Hanns-Martin Schneidt, cond. Arte Nova, recorded Oct. 30, 1988

Florence Quivar, mezzo-soprano; Ernst-Senff Chorus, Berlin Philharmonic, Carlo Maria Giulini, cond. DG, recorded April 1989

Lili Chookasian, contralto; Tanglewood Festival Chorus, Boston Symphony Orchestra, Erich Leinsdorf, cond. RCA/BMG, recorded Oct. 5-6 1964, Apr. 5, 1965


KEEP THE "INGEMISCO" AND "LIBER SCRIPTUS" IN MIND

We're going to be coming back to them.


MEANWHILE HERE AGAIN IS "IS LIFE A BOON?"

A song of the splendor of (the second) "Is life a boon?" deserves a comparably magnificent performance, and unfortunately I don't have one of those to offer. Still the closest to me is Leonard Osborn's, which for all the familiar problems of his singing is the performance the not only has plenty of real vocal ring but a goodly helping of dramatic importance. Although as I've said I'm not a great fan of onetime D'Oyly Carte Opera Company principal tenor Derek Oldham, I kind of like both of his recordings, though I'm still bothered by the fake-classy verbal frilliness -- much better controlled, it seems to me, in the 1928 version. I suppose Richard Lewis's recording represents something of a compromise between the two, though you certainly can't say it's beautifully sung.

Which is why I've included the remaining two versions, which are both quite prettily sung but don't seem to me to carry any vocal or emotional weight, and pretty much miss the point of the piece.

GILBERT and SULLIVAN: The Yeomen of the Guard: Act I, Ballad, Col. Fairfax, "Is life a boon?"
Is life a boon?
If so, it must be befall
that Death, whene'er he call
must call too soon.
Though fourscore year he give,
yet one would wish to live
another moon!
What kind of plaint have I,
who perish in July?
who perish in July?
I might have had to die
perchance in June!
I might have had to die
perchance in June!

Is life a thorn?
Then count it not a whit!
Man is well done with it
soon as he's born.
He should all means essay
to put the plague away,
to put the plague away;
and I, war-worn,
poor captured fugitive,
my life most gladly give.
I might have had to live
another morn!
I might have had to live
another morn!

Leonard Osborn (t), Col. Fairfax; New Promenade Orchestra, Isidore Godfrey, cond. Decca, recorded July 18, 1950

Richard Lewis (t), Col. Fairfax; Pro Arte Orchestra, Sir Malcolm Sargent, cond. EMI, recorded Dec. 10-14, 1957

Derek Oldham (t), Col. Fairfax; D'Oyly Carte Opera Orchestra, Malcolm Sargent, cond. EMI, recorded Oct. 29-Dec. 4, 1928 (digital transfer by F. Reeder)

Derek Oldham (t), Col. Fairfax; orchestra, George Byng, cond. EMI, recorded Mar.-Oct. 1920 (digital transfer by F. Reeder)

Philip Potter (t), Col. Fairfax; Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Sir Malcolm Sargent, cond. Decca, recorded Apr. 5-11, 1964

Kurt Streit (t), Col. Fairfax; Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, Neville Marriner, cond. Philips, recorded May 1992
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