British composer Lionel Monckton was the reigning king of British musical theater between the Victorian heyday of Gilbert and Sullivan and the sleek, buttoned-down drawing room comedies of Noël Coward and Ivor Novello. Hyperion's Lionel Monckton: Songs from the Shows is a career survey featuring songs from various shows Monckton composed between 1894 and 1911, performed by the New London Orchestra led by Ronald Corp -- a group that has already distinguished itself through the Hyperion British Light Music Classics series -- and singers Richard Suart and Catherine Bott. Suart has the idiom down cold and characterizes Monckton's cheerful and clearly popularly oriented tunes with enthusiasm; Bott seems a bit out of her element here, sounding more comfortable in Italian than in Edwardian period English; however, when she sings along with Suart it works, as Bott is able to draw from his example and energy. At certain points, the orchestra sounds a little low in the mix, but overall Lionel Monckton: Songs from the Shows is fine, and the chorus is terrific.
The program consists of songs "romantic, swashbuckling and plain silly" and that is an apt description; Monckton's music comes from the narrow and slightly soiled cobblestone streets of London, not the chilly, Alpine atmospherics of Viennese operetta or the rough and tumble wiseacres that populated Tin Pan Alley in the years just prior to Irving Berlin. Monckton's music is gleeful, simple, and only slightly formal with no pretension of being operatic, in contrast to Gilbert and Sullivan, who used semi-operatic gestures in a kind of parody of pomposity. Many of these tunes, such as "Maisie," "All Down Piccadilly," "Beautiful bountiful Bertie," "The boy guessed right," and others are irresistibly catchy, and indeed, some Londoners continued to whistle them well into the 1960s, long after their time on the stage was past. However, they do not travel as well as Gilbert and Sullivan; Monckton's music is directly addressed to his intended audience and chimes in well with the tastes of the Edwardian London of his era. So for some, warming up to Hyperion's Lionel Monckton: Songs from the Shows might be a little bit of work -- certainly that book contains the English lyrics to all of the songs is a handy feature -- but for many who are also Gilbert and Sullivan enthusiasts, this will come as a revelation. Certainly, with so many recorded performances of Gilbert and Sullivan recorded again and again, it seems only fair that we should have a comprehensive disc of Lionel Monckton such as this.