SULLIVAN:  The Martyr of Antioch
Catherine Foster, soprano; Gillian Knight, contralto; Stephen Brown, tenor; Gareth Jones, bass; Stephen Godward, bass; Clive Woods, organist; Northern Chamber Orch/Richard Balcombe, cond.

SYMPOSIUM 1289 (F) (DDD) TT:  78:41

Here is the first recording of another non-operetta work by Sir Arthur Sullivan. The Martyr of Antioch, which the composer called a "Sacred Musical Drama," was written for the Leeds Triennial Musical Festival, one of the most prestigious provincial musical festivals in the country, for performance October 15, 1880. As Sullivan was involved in writing H.M.S. Pinafore and had many other commitments, it took him two years to complete the work. He had selected The Martyr of Antioch, a poetic drama written in 1822 by Henry Hart Milman (1791-1868), Dean of St. Paul's. Olybius is in love with Margarita who is now a Christian and can no longer love him.  Her refusal to betray her faith in Christ leads to her death with the words of rapture on her lips:  "The Christ, the Christ, commands me to his home; Jesus, Redeemer, Lord, I come! I come! I come!"  Sullivan asked W. S. Gilbert to put some of the author's blank verse into rhyme and to make other suggestions as to necessary dramatic compression.  Sullivan himself made the decision to change the heroine's death from decapitation to burning at the stake. 

Sullivan was appointed director of the Leeds Festival in 1879, a position he maintained for two decades, and conducted the premiere of Martyr October 13, 1880, a truly festive occasion with the Duke of Edinburgh present. Sullivan's score was greeted with the greatest enthusiasm and until the first World War was performed frequently in England.  However it soon fell into oblivion until 1983 when the Sir Arthur Sullivan Society revived it. This recording was made August 6, 2000 at the seventh International Gilbert  & Sullivan Festival, Buxton, Derbyshire. It doesn't state this is a live concert recording; there are no audience sounds, and no applause. It's rather distant-sounding, as if microphones were rather far away from performers.  

 The lengthy (78:41) score bears little resemblance to Sullivan's other non-vocal music.  The "Chorus of Heathen Maidens and Christians" is hardly what one would expect from the title.  Even the climax of the final section, "The hour of mercy's o'er, or sacrifice, or die," amounts to little. The five vocal soloists are unexceptional -- particularly the women who emit some decidedly unpleasant sounds.  The orchestra and chorus are fine under Richard Balcombe's direction.  Martyr remains a dated period piece written by a composer whose operettas to this day retain their freshness and originality. CD Documentation is inadequate. There's a listing of the 19 sections of the work, but no timings or singer identification as to who sings what -- and no libretto. 

R.E.B. (Aug. 2001)