As a major figure on the oratorio circuit Vyvyan sang countless Messiahs of every shape, size and approach to ‘authenticity’ – mostly on the Huddersfield/Leeds/Three Choirs choral circuit with the key oratorio soloists of the era: Richard Lewis, Peter Pears, Norma Proctor, Owen Brannigan through to Janet Baker, Paul Esswood, Robert Tear.
They memorably included monster versions with choirs 1000-strong at the Albert Hall under Malcolm Sargent or at Alexandra Palace under Yehudi Menuhin. But otherwise, on more manageable terms, they came by conveyor-belt: not least in December 1953 when she sang five Messiahs in a single week – in Northampton, Leeds, London, St Albans and Bradford.
In December 1955 there was a TV performance in Leeds under Sargent. And in September 1959 she was with Sargent again for Handel bicentenary performances in Berlin and Antwerp – travelling out with Norma Proctor, Walter Midgley, Donald Bell and the Huddersfield Choral Society to give the Germans (especially) a taste of English Handel in the grand tradition.
From the reviews, passed on to Vyvyan by the British Council, the Berlin critics were taken aback by the scale of the performance but tolerant of its stylistic liberties and positively charmed by Sargent.
Vyvyan was praised in Der Tag for ‘activity and profundity’, in Tagesspiegel for her ‘heavenly sound’. And Die Welt noted the ‘uproarious applause’ which apparently lasted fifteen minutes, commending Sargent who ‘in spite of an unusual reading had succeeded in convincing us of the validity of this interpretation’.
In 1960 came a TV recording of Messiah Part III in Utrecht. And the same year she flew on Christmas Day to Rotterdam for a Boxing Day performance, taking an 11.40pm boat back to the UK after the show.
She also appeared as soprano soloist in two landmark Messiah recordings – arguably the most significant of their era – that were respectively conducted by Beecham and Boult, and adopted very different views on the degree of liberty it was acceptable to take with Handel’s intentions.
The Boult came first, for Decca in 1954. And in a summary of the four available complete recordings at that time – which apart from the Boult were Hermann Scherchen for HMV, Beecham for HMV, and Sargent for Columbia – the Gramophone’s critic Andrew Porter chose Boult as ‘paramount, on every count…the one to have’ as well as ‘the finest thing he has ever done’.
The boxed-set package promised an experience of the piece that would be ‘just as Handel wrote it’ – a claim that might not impress historically-informed ears in the 21st Century, but had some validity in the mid-20th. The performing edition, by Julian Herbage, was the result of serious scholarship. The forces used were relatively small. And while the London Philharmonic Orchestra was was anything but a period performance band as we now know such things, it played with clarity and brightness.
Porter had some reservations about Vyvyan’s performance but commends ‘I know that my redeemer liveth’ and thinks ‘If God be for us’ is the best version on disc.
The later Beecham recording issued in 1960 and was a very different proposition. Handsomely packaged by RCA, it came in an edition that Norman del Mar (writing in Record Review May 1960) called a ‘remarkable concoction prepared…in the main by Sir Eugene Goossens’, adding that it was ‘intended provocatively to make history and I cannot see how it can fail to do so’.
RCA tellingly announced it not as ‘Handel’s Messiah‘ but ‘Beecham’s Messiah‘; and it was designed, as The Times observed, to ‘take advantage of the modern symphony orchestra to brighten and invigorate Handel’s music’. Supercharged, it played like high-energy opera, with vividly imagined wind and brass additions, creamily luxuriant textures, and few concessions to what would come to be called ‘authenticity’. As a contemporary joke suggested, it was ‘Handel after a Beecham’s pill’.
But at the same time, it wasn’t the traditional kind of mass-voiced Messiah beloved by northern choral societies. Alongside the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra was something called the Royal Philharmonic Chorus that was in fact 80 professional singers – or so they were identified in the Gramophone’s review of May 1960. Written by Denis Stevens, it admitted that ‘a purist …ought to be repelled by some of the things that happen in this recording’. But for all this, he considered it ‘not the recording of the month, or even the year, but of the century’.
In the same review, Stevens thought Vyvyan’s singing less assured than in the earlier Boult version but was enthusiastic about ‘Rejoice Greatly’, where ‘her easy projection of florid runs lends a lightness and joyfulness to the aria which few other sopranos could hope to match’.
To this day, her Beecham account of that aria remains her most frequently repackaged and re-released recording.
Handel - other oratorios and stage works
On the back of her Messiahs Vyvyan found herself drawn into the deeper, more recherche world of Handel’s other oratorios and operas at a time when that repertoire was beginning to open out – from the academic interest of scholars to the actuality of public performance.
She took part in pioneering accounts of Alexander’s Feast under Neville Marriner, Jephtha with Rafael Kubelik and the Berlin Philharmonic, and Athalia under Anthony Lewis. Solomon, Saul, Lucretia, Israel in Egypt, L’Allegro ed il Penseroso and Amadigi all featured in her schedule. She also sang the Israelite Woman in a 1958 performance of Samson at Covent Garden, conducted by Raymond Leppard.
And above all, there were critically significant stagings of Radamisto and Rinaldo for the Handel Opera Society.
The HOS was a remarkable phenomenon of the mid-20th Century begun in 1955 when Handel’s operas meant little more to the British public than isolated arias sung in concert and the odd, rare staged performance in Cambridge or Dartington. Stagings in Germany were more common, with festival productions at Halle and Gottingen since the 1920s. But the length and complexity of the operas was generally thought uncommercial. And few in Britain challenged that assumption until Charles Farncombe arrived on the scene to give many of these works their first modern revivals in the UK. Sometimes, in the world.
Farncombe (1919-2006) was an engineer who gave up his intended career after being injured in the 2nd World War, turning instead to music and above all (steered by Edward Dent) to Handel. He conducted a choir of civil servants at the Board of Trade. And when he established the Handel Opera Society, for which he served as music director throughout its 30-year existence, these same civil servants became the basis not just for his chorus but for an unusually effective amateur administration.
It amassed goodwill, not least from St Pancras Borough Council which had an enlightened arts policy, a thriving annual festival, and a venue in St Pancras Town Hall that it made available to Farncombe for his first staged production – of the little-known Deidamia in June 1955.
Scarcely seen or heard since 1741, Deidamia was Handel’s last Italian opera before he switched his focus to oratorio. So this pioneering account attracted widespread interest – although it was done on a shoestring with money from Farncombe’s war gratuity, an Arts Council grant of £35, and payments from HOS members, the John Lewis Partnership and Novello’s publishers.
The total budget for Deidamia, a one-off performance, was £213, with wardrobe costs of £4.11s 8d and soloists accounting for £59.18s 9d. But from this modest start grew an enterprise that would give early engagements to Joan Sutherland (whose HOS Alcina in 1957 marked a turning point in her career before the Covent Garden Lucia di Lammermoor made her famous), April Cantelo (Theodora 1958), Janet Baker (Rodelinda 1959), Heather Harper (Semele 1959)…through to Josephine Barstow, Philip Langridge and James Bowman in later years.
HOS stage directors included Anthony Besch, Douglas Craig and Colin Graham who, from 1959, had access to the better facilities of Sadlers Wells theatre. And along with Farncombe, they all made significant contributions to the question of how to present this largely forgotten repertoire to modern audiences.
Farncombe made the performing editions himself, trimming the running times from 4-5hrs down to 2 ½ . And as countertenors hadn’t yet emerged out of cathedral choirs to become the stage animals they are now, there was an abiding issue of how to allocate castrato roles. In Germany they were normally sung by tenors, transposed down an octave. But Farncombe preferred mezzos in trousers.
All this continued until 1985 when fashion turned against the HOS way of doing things and the Arts Council ended its funding.
Meanwhile, through the 60s-70s, Jennifer Vyvyan appeared with the company seven times: three of them in full stagings, four in concert.
First, in 1960 at Sadlers Wells and later repeated in 1965, came Radamisto – in which Vyvyan sang Polissena and ‘brought the show to a standstill’ (The Times) with the exhilarating brilliance of her rage aria: rage arias being a Vyvyan speciality. It was the first time the piece had graced the English stage since 1728, and understandably it attracted much attention.
1961 brought Rinaldo, with Vyvyan delivering more rage (and explosive vocal fireworks) as the sorceress Armida.
The production launched at Sadlers Wells, marking the 250th anniversary of the piece, which had been Handel’s first ever for the London stage. And one person who remembers that production is Michael Johnson, husband of the oboist Sarah Francis, who was a young Board of Trade civil servant at the time, assisting with the HOS administration but also co-opted into the ensemble of stage extras. He recalls:
‘I found myself in 1961 onstage at Sadlers Wells, clad in chain armour made of knitted dishcloth twine that had been painted silver, and carrying a banner for King Goffredo in Rinaldo while Jenny tore into Armida’s part – and it was the most exciting thing that had ever happened to me. The country is alive now with beautifully schooled young Handel singers, but no one has ever touched her for insight, virtuosity, handling of Handel’s words and sheer demonism.
‘What also struck me was her niceness – she was quite happy , standing in the wings waiting for her next tour de force, to chat to an obscure young banner-carrier’.
After a live BBC broadcast, Rinaldo toured to the Komische Opera, Berlin and to Halle in what was the first visit to East Germany by any British arts company since the war.
Interestingly, the costs were covered by the Germans. It was a prestige event. And it was hailed by the German press as a ‘brilliant success’.
Vyvyan repeated her Armida at Sadlers Wells in 1965, and then came a sequence of HOS concert performances that hired in the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, starting with Semele at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in 1967. She had already sung the title role in this dramatic oratorio (or ‘bawdy opera’ as the writer Charles Jennens called it in Handel’s own time) for a near-complete, pioneering recording in 1955 (now rel-released on Decca Eloquence) under Anthony Lewis, proving what a good role it was for her with its combination of brilliance, clarity and somewhat neurotic humanity.
1969 brought an HOS concert of Alexander’s Feast, also at the QEH. And in 1972 she sang the title role in Alcina, attracting a Times review by William Mann that wished she had been singing it in a full staging but admired the ‘mystery as well as brilliance in her voice’, and the way she ‘sang the invocation…boldly and dramatically, without inhibitions’.
He also thought that ‘now and again she ducked a top note, something we would ignore in the theatre’. But she took exception to that claim, and her husband Leon went so far as to draft a letter to the newspaper denying it – although it seems the letter was never actually sent.
Other examples that survive of Vyvyan singing Handel include a radio recording of a 1969 Rinaldo performance in Gothenburg, conducted by Jascha Horenstein.
There’s also a 1962 recording of Saul with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra under the Danish specialist in baroque and classical repertoire Mogens Woldike (1897-1988), where she sings Michal, the tender-hearted girl who marries David and fights to defend him. It’s preserved on Vanguard Classics SVC112/13.
Henry Purcell featured prominently in Vyvyan’s solo recitals, largely through The Expostulation of the Blessed Virgin – an extended sacred song, almost a cantata, from 1693 with a text by Nahum Tate that fancifully imagines Mary’s distress when she loses the young Jesus in the Temple. An intense, emotional display piece, it was musically re-fashioned in 1944 by Benjamin Britten for voice and piano in readiness for the 250th anniversary of Purcell’s death the following year. And it was Vyvyan who gave the first broadcast of this ‘realisation’ in 1953.
But another, larger Purcell work with which Vyvyan came to be associated (and indeed another Purcell score that Britten re-worked) was his semi-opera The Fairy Queen.
Written in 1692, probably as a celebratory entertainment for the wedding anniversary of the joint monarchs William & Mary, Fairy Queen is not so much a setting of Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream as an elaborate response to it that originally involved a bowdlerised version of the play enlarged by a sequence of allusive masques. The play is spoken by actors. And the singers, who accordingly don’t get to take on Shakespeare’s characters, assume generic roles like ‘mystery’, ‘sleep’, ‘fairy’ or ‘attendant’.
The original score vanished after the composer’s death and was assumed lost. But it re-appeared – fragmentary and only partly in Purcell’s own hand – in 1903, in the Royal Academy of Music library. In 1911 it was staged by amateurs at Morley College, under Gustav Holst. But the problem of how to present the piece effectively for a modern audience that wouldn’t want to sit through such a lengthy combination of speech and song meant it was still a rarity in 1957 when the musicologist/conductor Anthony Lewis recorded it for Decca in his own edition, with the Boyd Neel Orchestra and a cast that included Vyvyan and Peter Pears (now re-released on Decca Eloquence)
Lewis (1915-1983) was at that time an esteemed professor at Birmingham University (he would later become Principal of the Royal Academy of Music). His academic interests focused on baroque repertoire, preparing and directing his own editions. And he worked with Vyvyan repeatedly on Birmingham-based projects, of which this was an example – Vyvyan singing First Fairy, Mystery and Second Woman.
By 21st Century standards, Lewis’s slow tempi and allowance of vibrato render the performance questionable in terms of period practice. But Gramophone’s later verdict on Vyvyan’s pealing runs in Hark! The Echoing Air remained that it was ‘impeccable . Purcellian by any yardstick’.
Ten years later, Britten offered a different solution to problems of making Fairy Queen viable, with a compressed and re-ordered concert version he devised with Peter Pears and Imogen Holst for the 1967 Aldeburgh Festival – an important one that launched Snape Maltings’ new life as a performance venue (although it would burn down and have to be rebuilt two years later).
Vyvyan sang in the premiere and in subsequent performances at Aldeburgh 1969 (touring afterwards to the Flanders Festival), at the QEH in 1970, and at the Proms in 1971 – when Stanley Sadie in the Times regretted Britten’s slow speeds but allowed that they were to the singers’ advantage: ‘Jennifer Vyvyan, for example, who sang with uncommon lightness and subtlety of phrase, and shaped the lovely Plaint exquisitely’.
She also sang on Britten’s 1970 Decca recording with the English Chamber Orchestra.
Vyvyan’s Purcell discography embraces a 1958 recording with Anthony Lewis of music from the composer’s other theatre works, including his first semi-opera Diocletian and his supposed incidental score to Shakespeare’s The Tempest. But baroque scholarship moves on, and so does scholarly opinion – to the extent that the Tempest music is now thought to have been written not by Purcell but by John Weldon (1676-1736), a pupil of Purcell, educated at Eton and a Gentleman of the Chapel of the Royal.
Other Baroque composers
At the same time that the Handel operas were being rediscovered, the stage works of his contemporaries Francois Couperin and Jean-Phillippe Rameau were returning to performance – and not only in France.
Vyvyan recorded various Couperin items in 1953 (now available on Decca Eloquence) with a notable collection of instrumentalists from the time, including violinist Neville Marriner, organist Ralph Downes, and harpsichordist Boris Ord. The director was Anthony Lewis. And among the virtually unknown repertoire on that release was Couperin’s Motet de Sainte Suzanne, written in 1702 with an Italian operatic orchestration even though it’s thought to have been first performed by a community of nuns.
As for Rameau, Vyvyan sang in early Third Programme broadcasts of his lyric tragedies Hippolyte et Aricie (October 1951) and Dardanus (February 1952).
And in later years her Aldeburgh Festival appearances included what was considered the first ever performance of Rameau’s pastoral Zephyre – given in 1967 at the Jubilee Hall in an edition by George Malcolm, who directed from the harpsichord, with Vyvyan singing the title role Zephyrus ‘in virtuoso style and with compelling intensity’ according to William Mann in the Times.
Also at Aldeburgh, she joined the tenor Robert Tear for music by Cavalli, realised and directed in 1968 by Raymond Leppard, and including a comic song delivered ‘irresistibly’ (Andrew Porter, Financial Times) as new evidence of the composer’s wit.
Vyvyan’s work in this world of baroque reinvestigation brought her into contact with Thurston Dart (1921-71), the scholar, editor and keyboard player who played a key role in the early music revival of the 1950s/60s and taught in both Cambridge and London (where his students included Christopher Hogwood, John Eliot Gardiner and Michael Nyman!) until his early death.
It was Dart who played the harpsichord for Vyvyan’s Rameau broadcasts, above. And Dart again who directed from the keyboard her 1957 recording of Alessandro Scarlatti’s duet cantatas Floro e Tirsi and Clori e Lisa, both made with Elsie Morison as the other soprano (and available now on Decca Eloquence).
With her work on the oratorio circuit, Vyvyan inevitably sang plenty of JS Bach, much of it with no great pretence of historically-informed performance.
But she kept good company from the start. By 1949 she was appearing in Bach cantatas at the Aldeburgh Festival alongside Pears and Britten. And recordings exist of her singing the Missa Brevis BWV233 with Dennis Darlow and his Tilford Bach Festival forces, as well as the Christmas Cantata BWV133 with John Carol Case and Ian Partridge.
She also appeared several times at the venerable Bach Choir Festival of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania – founded in 1898 and the oldest surviving fixture of its kind in the US – where she established a devoted following. As a review in the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin observed after a performance in May 1963, ‘the sensation of the afternoon was the British soprano Jennifer Vyvyan’ singing Cantata BWV51, a demandingly virtuosic work scored for soprano and trumpet soloists and requiring a good top C.
‘For the first time in forty years of attending this festival’, gushed the Bulletin critic, ‘I heard a burst of spontaneous applause as a great wave of enthusiasm echoed through the Chapel. Even the Bach Choristers joined in this remarkable demonstration.
‘Miss Vyvyan thoroughly deserved this show of approval. She is a born Bach singer and she taught an important lesson to all present; because of her sense of projection and complete involvement, Bach’s music was removed from the stuffy, the bloodless and the academic and took on an entirely contemporary feeling.
‘It would seem that the British singers have arrived, what with Joan Sutherland, Richard Lewis, and now Miss Vyvyan’.
One last item of baroque repertoire that played a part in Vyvyan’s early artistic development was the 1728 English vernacular response to Handelian Italian stageworks, John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera.
Vyvyan sang in more than one version of the piece, starting with Benjamin Britten’s which was her introduction to the English Opera Group in 1948. She took the small but telling role of Jenny Diver, one of the ‘ladies of the town’, in the premiere production (staged by Tyrone Guthrie) that opened in Cambridge in May and was broadcast by the BBC in September, also touring to Holland, Belgium, Cheltenham and Sadlers Wells.
The cast included EOG regulars like Nancy Evans, Otakar Kraus and (awkwardly cast as the devil-may-care Captain Macheath) Peter Pears. And as the broadcast was privately recorded onto acetate by Britten’s friend and champion Lord Harewood, it was much later released as a commercial CD by Pearl – revealing among other things Vyvyan’s gift for knockabout comedy, in an affected low-class accent that barely disguises her natural, cut-glass vowels.
She also sang, but didn’t actually appear, on a 1953 film of Arthur Bliss’s version of the piece, now available on DVD. As the singing voice of actress Daphne Anderson (1922-2013) who played Lucy Lockit, she joined a distinguished line-up of other invisible singers including Edith Coates and Joan Cross. Laurence Olivier led the onscreen cast.