[For an explanation of this nonsense, go here.]
SPEW: The Gazebo of Ecstasy, Op. 132. Ernest Able conducting; Graeme Gower, baritone (Drumlanrig); Dorothy True, contralto (Hyacinth); Sylvia Bunting, soprano (Irmea); William Floss-Haines, countertenor (Sage); Amy Biggs, mezzo-soprano (Exquisite Nymph); Wolfgang Schrek, speaker (Jellyfish); Sussex Schools Boys' Choir; Sussex Downs Symphony Orchestra. MARCO POLO 3020 [AAD]; three discs: 63:10, 58:03, 34:23.
For many decades the neglect of the late-nineteenth-century Manx composer Lionel Wainscotte Spew (1869-1917) has been a subject of pain for devotees of unsung music from the British Isles. With this release from Marco Polo, the situation has begun to be remedied. Spew lived most of his life on the Isle of Man, but attended Oxford briefly and afterwards worked in London as a copyist for Sir Arthur Sullivan. His early works showed the influence of Spohr, Czerny, and Raff; as he moved into his middle period, with such works as the Channel Symphony and the large-scale oratorio The Assumption, he began to establish an independent voice which should have won him a place beside such major lights of the era as Charles Hubert Parry. What a teeming wealth of music remains to be discovered: the six symphonies (among them the Sinfonia longa, whose score Sibelius once glanced at), the nine viola concertos (Spew was a great friend of violist Dorian Cathcart Trew, 1863-1921), the seven wonderful sonatas for horn and piano, surely among the finest of their kind written in Northern Europe in the latter half of the nineteenth century, hundreds of organ etudes (Spew was a gifted if eccentric organist), and a series of five music dramas, of which The Gazebo of Ecstasy is the first to be performed—excluding one disastrous production of Young Domitian at the Isle of Man Summer Opera Festival in 1916, a heartbreaking ordeal which forced a sharp and it turned out fatal decline in Spew's always faltering health.
The plot of The Gazebo of Ecstasy might be summarized briefly in order to give the reader a picture of the slightly remote but nonetheless fascinating Edwardian atmosphere out of which the opera so vibrantly springs. The text is more or less of Spew's own composition; it is based upon an epic poem published in 1903 by the Irish poet James O'Flaherty Flanagan, who was a follower of William Butler Yeats in the nineties literary movement known as the "Celtic Twilight." The Gazebo of the title is a small structure on the cliffs of the northern side of the Isle of Man, known for centuries to be inhabited by the ghost of Drumlanrig, who visits the hut as a respite from his restless wanderings across the Irish Sea in search of the maiden Irmea, who threw herself off the cliff sometime in the late Iron Age for reasons that neither the poem nor the opera ever makes entirely clear. Drumlanrig speaks his woe aloud to the waves as the opera opens; he is overheard by Hyacinth, a thirteen-year-old boy who is alone in a neighboring cottage, accidentally left there by his vacationing parents. Hyacinth and Drumlanrig swear eternal friendship and together go in search of the Amulet of Ecstasy, which will, it is said, restore Irmea to life. They journey far and wide, enter a land of ancient dwarves, and meet a fiery Sage who duly informs them that the Amulet in fact is hidden beneath the Gazebo (hence the title). When the Amulet is finally held aloft, Irmea rises from the waves, greets Drumlanrig with joy, but then sees Hyacinth playing his flute in the Gazebo, falls madly in love with him, and in a strange homicidal fit drags the boy back into the sea with her. Drumlanrig resumes his restless wanderings as the curtain falls.
In a startling half-hour epilogue to the opera Spew asks the orchestra to execute a wearingly repetitive series of astringent quarter-tone effects; otherwise the opera is written very much in the conservative idiom of the era, with hints here and there of Spew's late masterpieces still to come (his final opera, Gladstone, and the Sinfonia galactica). Irmea's aria to Hyacinth is surely one of the heights of British musical pastoralism, and the harrowing descent into the waves that follows (a huge downward chromatic scale from the top to the bottom of the orchestra, largissimo) is, well, harrowing. Marco Polo has put us forever in their debt by gathering forces for this production, although here and there one must have complaints. The singing of Dororthy True (no relation to the violist) as Hyacinth misses a little of the pure innocence one might desire for this role. Graeme Gower as Drumlanrig is very pleasing indeed, with a faintly sinister baritone that proves illuminating in a role which might otherwise be played with too much pure innocence. Dame Sylvia Bunting, as Irmea, brings back memories of her greatest days. The singing of the Sussex Schools Boys' Choir, as the Waves, is occasionally a bit rough around the edges but nonetheless is highly evocative. The Sussex Downs Symphony Orchestra lacks a finish to their sound that one might expect, say, from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, which would be the ideal Spew ensemble, but they play with much spirit and enthusiasm. The conductor is Ernest Able, and one might see that he is both earnest and able, no pun intended. A minor complaint about the notes: the annotator twice misspells the name of Spew's friend True as "Trew." Recommended with the utmost possible enthusiasm.