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Richard Lewis in recital

1957 · 1963. BBC Studios · Calgary
This recording brings together two recitals given by the tenor Richard Lewis: the first in the BBC Studios in 1957; the second a concert in Calgary in 1963.
Singers Maureen Forrester, Richard Lewis
Ensemble BBC Singers
Pianists Ernest Lush, Geoffrey Parsons, Frederick Stone
Genre Recital

Richard Lewis in Calgary

February 1963, for Richard Lewis, was rather an easy month. Apart from this
recital in Calgary, there were only two others. He had only to learn, and perform,
one new opera (Strauss’s Intermezzo), appear once in The Rake’s Progress and sing in
Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde. And of course
there were the rehearsals. But that was (almost) nothing to the pressures of the
previous month, when Fidelio had been followed by Die Zauberflöte and that by
King Priam, with broadcasts of The Rake’s Progess and The Midsummer Marriage, and
Benvenuto Cellini at the Royal Festival Hall.There were also a few little extras such
as Das Lied in Dublin and the Ninth in Brussels. And Desert Island Discs. But that’s a
singer’s life. And even the ‘easy’ month of February involved a certain amount of
travel – crossing the Atlantic for a start, then planes from New York to Iowa to
Edmonton to Saskatoon to Calgary to Seattle to Los Angeles. No wonder his
teacher, old Norman Allin, said he preferred to remain where he was.
By the 1960s British singers were no longer the stay-at-homes they had been a
generation earlier. In the interwar years, the lot even of our leading singers
(say, those ‘16 famous soloists’ chosen to sing in Vaughan Williams’ Serenade to Music
for the jubilee of Sir Henry Wood) was very much to sing Messiah up and down the
country and be ready and able to turn a hand to whatever else might be
forthcoming. After the War, the international success of Kathleen Ferrier made a
difference; so did the general broadening of repertoire and the proven reliability
of British singers in a wide range of music.

Nobody impressed more firmly in that respect than Lewis, the tenor from
Manchester, whose career might have begun a few years earlier had it not been
for the War. It probably helped that he was able to produce glowing reviews of
engagements (while still in the Forces) in Brussels, and in England he won speedy
recognition and welcome, first, as a natural tenor with an unusually beautiful voice.
It then soon became apparent to conductors, critics and (ultimately) the public that
he was that pearl of great price – a tenor who could master difficult scores, learn
quickly and be relied on not to make mistakes. I myself heard him for the first time
in a performance of Peter Grimes, on tour in Birmingham.The role seemed
inseparable from the voice of Peter Pears and, to be truthful, I was by no means
pre-disposed in the new tenor’s favour. In those days, the opinions of the supposed
cognoscenti (mainly record collectors specialising in the great names of old) counted
for much, and they had not favoured him with even that sighing acknowledgement
which is prepared to concede merit in the context of these degenerate times.
I must have heard him in broadcasts and on records, but without strong reactions.
‘In the flesh’ what took me quite by surprise was the sheer beauty, the ingratiating
purity of tone. I had learned that it was unwise to expect a voice to sound ‘in the
flesh’ as it did on records, and had come to dread the discovery that a singer (male
or female) whose voice on records had been what I called pure had in fact an upper
layer of metallic overtones (which may have been simply wear).
Lewis had nothing of this. He was young, and perhaps the impurity would come
later, though in my experience it never did, or only in the form of a hardening as
he approached his sixties. Critics would sometimes describe the voice in those days
as ‘soft-grained’, and I could see what they meant; but the term is misleading if it suggests a want of effective power, a drawing-room voice or one without the
penetrative thrust to withstand the power of a large orchestra. I think I came to
realise how much ‘heft’ he had on first hearing him in the opening song of Das Lied
von der Erde: the orchestral weight there, and the density of it, would seem to make
it impossible for the tenor to get through, but he did. In the Grimes I heard, not
only was the voice produced with a rare freshness and evenness, but it was
genuinely pure, free of that ‘surface-scratch’ which compromises the beauty of a
singer’s tone. Lewis registered with me as a less intense Grimes than Pears, less at
one with the musical character, but more moving through the beauty of sound.
By the early 1950s he had established himself as one of the busiest, most
comprehensively useful, singers in the country. In some quarters this was even
thought a liability. As early as 1951, Desmond Shawe-Taylor, a fastidious critic
whose temperament probably inclined him to set exclusivity above usefulness,
wrote of him in a review of Glyndebourne’s Così fan tutte that he made ‘as good a
Ferrando as could be expected from a singer who undertakes so excessive a
quantity of new and difficult music per month’.That year’s undertakings included
Idomeneo, Don Giovanni, Die Zauberflöte, The Rake’s Progress and La traviata – and that
was simply in opera. And if he read Shawe-Taylor’s words, they did not deter him
from more. In the following years he became so indispensable that if he was
indisposed one evening the show could not go on.That certainly was the situation
on Midsummer Marriage evenings at Covent Garden. I remember the official
collecting tickets at the foot of the Amphitheatre steps having trouble with a
dissatisfied customer who had discovered that, instead of the Tippett opera,
it was (oh, the indignity of it!) La bohème that was to be given that night.
After listening patiently, while everybody had to wait, the ticket man leant forward and said confidingly: ‘If you were to ask me, sir, and if you’ll take my word for it,
I’d say you were in luck’.
The previous year, 1954, Lewis had created the role of Troilus in Walton’s Troilus
and Cressida, and in 1961 he was to be the first Achilles in Tippett’s King Priam.
The readiness with which he learnt the music of Aron for the British premiere of
Schoenberg’s opera was regarded as phenomenal. And nobody, as far as I have read,
raised any quibbles of the ‘very-good-considering’ kind about that. In fact the role
provided just such a challenge as he loved.
His widow, Elizabeth Muir-Lewis, has told me that as a young man growing up in
Manchester he heard two world-famous tenors,Tauber and Gigli. He admired both
(and Gigli promised to hear him sing when he next returned to the city, which,
however, was not to be), but Tauber became the model.Tauber’s breadth of
repertoire appealed to him, and the sense that in him you had a tenor who was also
a musician – Tauber conducted and composed, and had a well-founded reputation
as a quick study. In fact, so great was the young man’s admiration that when, on the
advice of his teacher, he changed his name (which was Thomas Thomas) he took his
mother’s maiden-name of Lewis and chose Richard as a tribute to Tauber.
Tauber’s breadth of musicianship was reflected, with interest, in Lewis’s own
recitals.The Calgary programme is a fair sample. Opening with Purcell (Lewis had
sung in revivals of The Fairy Queen and King Arthur), he went on to Handel.The
recitative and aria from Jephtha was a regular favourite and was noted as being
especially ‘moving in its dignity and strength’. Here, in Calgary, he followed with a
French group, where more often that would come in the second half, a selection of  Lieder taking its place in the first.The inclusion of an operatic aria somewhere in
the programme was also with him a point of honour (I remember him singing
‘Recondita armonia’ with excitingly full voice for an audience of schoolboys).
Here the reminder of his Hoffmann clearly delighted the audience with its vivid
characterisation and generously held high A natural.
The second half is devoted to British song, presenting everyone concerned
(audience as well as both performers) with the challenge of a comparatively
difficult large-scale modern work. In other concerts it might be Tippett’s The
Heart’s Assurance; here it is Britten’s On This Island.The audience is then rewarded
with Vaughan Williams, Quilter and Butterworth, and finally with a group of folk
songs. Can anybody who was present have ever forgotten the magic of that
unaccompanied opening of ‘I will give my love an apple’?
It is then that, with the encores, he speaks to the audience and refers to ‘my
excellent pianist’.With due acknowledgement of the personal impact of what he is
about to say, he pays tribute to Geoffrey Parsons for playing under sad and difficult
conditions: he had learnt that day of the death of his father. Geoffrey was his
favourite accompanist, a musician thorough and dependable like himself, and an
ideal companion on tour. He could readily have been excused for withdrawing,
and Richard knew of his feelings for his father, having sung for him privately at
their recent, and last, meeting. But Geoffrey, who was to be so stoical and gallant
in the face of his own final illness, was not the man to let private feelings prevail
over professional duty.
© John Steane, 2010


Richard Lewis sings Tippett and Janácek

Richard Lewis (1914–90) was unsurpassed among British tenors of the midtwentieth-
century in his willingness and ability to tackle challenging contemporary
scores. Between 1953 and 1965 he appeared in the British premières of Stravinsky’s
The Rake’s Progress and Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron, as well as in the world
premières of Walton’s Troilus and Cressida, and Tippett’s The Midsummer Marriage and
King Priam. From the late 1940s he had followed Peter Pears in such leading Britten
roles as Peter Grimes, Male Chorus (The Rape of Lucretia) and Captain Vere (Billy
Budd). It was said at the time that Britten always tried to keep Lewis at arm’s
length, since he had a stronger upper register than Pears – an obvious advantage in
heavier operatic parts. In fact, the two voices were simply different, with each
singer no less accomplished in his own particular way.
Lewis was certainly in his element in the impassioned and heroic declamation that
dominates Tippett’s two great works for voice and piano. Pears and Britten were
the joint dedicatees of Boyhood’s End, and gave the first performances of both
works, in 1943 and 1951 respectively. Brilliant pianist though he was, Britten had
reservations about Tippett’s florid piano style, and when Pears came to record the
compositions in 1953 – at a time when Britten was fully occupied with his
coronation opera, Gloriana – Noel Mewton-Wood was the pianist.
The cantata Boyhood’s End (1943) and the song cycle The Heart’s Assurance (1950-1)
come between two of Tippett’s most ambitious vocal works, the oratorio A Child of
our Time (1939-41) and the opera The Midsummer Marriage (1946-52), and sharing
some basic stylistic qualities with them. Both cantata and cycle are intensely lyrical
in a way that is unfailingly dramatic, even operatic, with the kind of elaborate vocal
melismas that proclaim the music’s roots in the English baroque of Purcell and Handel without in the least suggesting neo-classical pastiche. Other stylistic echoes
extend as far back as Monteverdi, as with the single-note trillo effect on the word
‘ecstasy’ in the final section of the cantata. Both use texts by English writers with
strong links to romantic traditions, yet they could hardly be more different,
Boyhood’s End nostalgically celebrating the abundance of life, The Heart’s Assurance
reflecting starkly on empherality and extinction.What links them is the importance
of memory, whereby past and present can be brought into either harmony or
As a multi-sectioned, single movement cantata, Boyhood’s End sets a segment of
the prose autobiography, Far Away and Long Ago, by W.H. Hudson (1841-1922), in
which, as an old man, he recalls his early empathy with the natural world in
Argentina, where he lived as a boy.The music is very much in the vein of pastoral
celebration that Tippett had first mined in his masterly Concerto for Double String
Orchestra (1939), and that would find its most memorable expression in the
Midsummer Marriage.Though there are obvious differences between Tippett’s
pastoralism and that of Vaughan Williams, there are nevertheless clear points of
contact between Tippett’s wartime, escapist vision of a kind of paradise – during
the year of Boyhood’s End’s composition,Tippett served a three-month prison
sentence in Wormwood Scrubs for his refusal to compromise his pacifist beliefs –
and Vaughan Williams’s often serene Fifth Symphony (completed in 1943), which
was inspired in part by Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress.
Tippett’s inherent and still youthful idealism shines through as a vocal line rich in
cadenza-like word-painting is supported by a no less elaborate accompaniment.
The piece nevertheless has a very purposeful harmonic and tonal design. An
introductory section establishing the governing mood of ecstatic reminiscence leads
into the first aria-like section – a vision of the seasons and the exotic birds that
appear in such profusion in South America. In a slower episode the mood changes as the mysterious landscape dominated by tall trees and highly coloured flowers is
recalled. But energy and excitement soon return with the description of the
thousands of cattle and horses who inhabit the land.Then there are more birds –
herons, egrets, spoonbills and flamingos – and ultimately, a multitude of glistening
balls of thistledown which inspires the culminating image of the human spirit
floating in space, freed from the earth’s gravity and all mundane experience.
As a devotee of William Blake,Tippett might well have felt the desire to match this
joyous song of innocence with songs of experience. The Heart’s Assurance presents
just such a contrast. It is a tribute to one of the composer’s closest friends who had
killed herself in the later stages of the war, and sets texts by Alun Lewis (1, 3,4)
and Sydney Keyes (2, 5), two poets killed during the same war. Its essential point is
that the impulsive conviction that love is real and immortal – the heart ruling the
head – is not to be trusted. At first, with No.1, ‘Song’, there seems a supreme
confidence that love and devotion can ‘live on/Long after death has come and
gone’. However, as becomes explicit in No.2, ‘the heart’s assurance’ of love and
joy, is balanced by ‘the heart’s fear’ – the certainty of death – especially in time of
war. In this situation, the intense and hard-won embodiment of compassion
becomes the most essential emotion (No.3). Human experience will always seek to
counter ‘the dread of death’ with a short-lived exuberance, as with the dancer who
sings in No.4. But the theme of war and loss emerges fully in No.5 (‘Remember
your lovers’), with its ultimately affirmative claim that those who survive can – as
long as they survive -remember the love as well as the dread.
Tippett thought of The Heart’s Assurance as a song cycle, since even though it has no
central protagonist or narrative sequence of events, there is a single governing
subject. Janácek’s The Diary of one who disappeared is also undoubtedly a cycle, with a
narrator describing a crucial sequence of events in his own life. But the fact that it
involves a contralto and three additional female voices as well as the tenor and piano indicates that it is in some respects a miniature drama, and quite capable of
being effectively performed in a semi-staged manner, as Ian Bostridge for one has
The diary of one who disappeared (its standard name in modern translations: the
tracklist preserves the translation by Bernard Keeffe, made when the work was far
less well known in English-speaking sountries) was written between 1917 and 1919
(with revisions in 1920), while Janácˇek was engaged on the complex and
protracted creation of his fifth opera, The Excursions of Mr Broucˇek. It therefore
belongs to the composer’s astonishingly original and productive late period:
Janácˇek may have been in his late sixties in 1917, but his erotic obsession with the
much younger Kamila Stösslova – something that she and her husband evidently
learned to live with – is generally held to have had a direct impact on the style and
subject-matter of works like The diary, not to mention the two string quartets and
the opera Katya Kabanova. Janácek told Kamila that he had her in mind as the gypsy
who bewitches the impulsively ardent country boy who narrates the drama.
The tenor protagonist dominates the 22 separate but continuously performed
numbers. During Nos 1 to 8 he describes his first sighting of the mysterious gypsy
girl, and how this intensifies the frustration and boredom of his life of hard
agricultural labour within a tight-knit family community.This un-idyllic pastoral
scene could hardly be more different from that represented in Boyhood’s End, but it
has much in common with the depictions of country life in Janácek’s operas Jenufa
and Katya Kabanova, and the folk-like inflections of Janácek’s melodic writing,
together with his reliance on explicitly modal harmony, are powerful examples of
his highly personal musical nationalism, in some ways very simple, in others elusive
and idiosyncratic .

In the central stages of the cycle (Nos. 9 to 11), the gypsy girl is heard, together
with her three companions, seducing the naive, vulnerable young man with sirenlike
close harmony and provocative invitations. After No.12, in which the young
man’s progress to his doom begins in earnest, there is a piano interlude (No.13)
dominated by the jagged figures of his disorientation and desire. Janácek had first
seen the anonymous poems, written in Valachian dialect, in the Lidové noviny
newspaper in May 1916.The identity of the author (probably a civil servant) has
never been definitively established, but the cumulative power of the text, in these
superbly vivid settings, has an impact no less harrowing than Schubert’s equally
great (though very different) celebration of doomed love, Die Winterreise. In The
Diary, however, it is not loss of love as such, but loss of family, home and innocence
that creates the tremendous dramatic vortex culminating in the final, desparately
ecstatic song of farewell, complete with high Cs, as the young man describes seeing
the strange enchantress with his child.
This recording came at quite an early stage in the British discovery of Janácek, and
Bernard Keefe’s English version is notably resourceful in the way it manages to
match Janacek’s language-specific rhythms.This performance is therefore not only
of great historical interest, from a time when the BBC Third Programme was at its
most adventurous. It shows just how successful all the artists involved were at
realising the essence of a very un-English masterwork, and the programme as a
whole also shows that some contemporary English music at least had nothing to
fear when placed alongside Janácek’s uninhibited and rampageous lyricism.

© Arnold Whittall, 2009

Richard Lewis in Calgary

Richard Lewis with Geoffrey Parsons

Track 1:

Henry Purcell (1959 – 1695)

Incassum lesbia (The Queen’s Epicedium)

George Frideric Handel (1685 – 1759)

War, he sang, is toil and trouble (Alexander’s Feast)

Deeper and deeper still…. Waft her, angels (Jephtha)

Track 2:

Henri Duparc (1848 – 1933)

Invitation au voyage

Claude Debussy (1862 – 1918)

Claire de lune (Fêtes galantes, Set 1)

Henri Duparc


Jacques Offenbach (1819 – 1880)

Legend of Keinsack (Les contes d’Hoffmann)

Track 3:

Benjamin Britten (1913 – 1976)

On this island

Let the florid music praise

Now the leaves are falling fast



As it is plenty

Track 4:

Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872 – 1958)

Four songs by Fredegond Shove

The water mill (No 4)

The new ghost (No 3)

Roger Quilter (1877 – 1953)

O Mistress mine, where are you roaming

Track 5:

Georges Bizet (1838 – 1875)

Serenade (The fair maid of Perth)

Jules Massenet (1842 – 1912)

Le rêve (Manon)

Track 6:

Rutland Boughton (1878 – 1912)

The fairy song (The immortal hour)


Richard Lewis BBC recital, 1957

Richard Lewis with Frederick Stone

Sir Michael Tippett (1905 – 1998)

Track 7:

Boyhood’s End

  1. Allegro non troppo: What, then, did I want
  2. Andante: To climb trees
  3. Allegro molto: To ride at noon
  4. Allegro piacevole: To lie on my back

Track 8:

The heart’s assurance

  1. Song: Oh journeyman
  2. The heart’s assurance: Oh never trust the heart’s assurance
  3. Compassion: She’s in the hurling night with lucid simple hands
  4. The Dancer: He’s in his grave and on his head
  5. Remember your lovers: Young men walking the open streets

Track 9:

Richard Lewis with Maureen Forrester, Ernest Lush, the BBC Singers

Leos Janáček (1854 – 1928)

The diary of a man who vanished

  1. One day I met a gypsy girl
  2. That black-eyed gypsy has haunted me all the day
  3. Through the twilight
  4. Already swallows are twittering overhead
  5. Weary work is ploughing!
  6. Hey there, my tawny oxen!
  7. I’ve got a loose axle
  8. Don’t look, my oxen
  9. Welcome, my handsome one
  10. God all-powerful
  11. From the ripening cornfield
  12. shady height
  13. Piano interlude
  14. Is the darkness lifting
  15. Now, white-tawny oxen, why do you stare at me?
  16. What has come over me?
  17. Who can escape his fate?
  18. Nothing matters now
  19. See that thieving magpie
  20. See my Zevka dance
  21. Father, how wrong you were
  22. Then farewell, dearest land
  23. Back-announcement









  • Richard Lewis
  • Maureen Forrester
  • Geoffrey Parsons
  • Frederick Stone
  • Ernest Lush

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