As the informative sleeve-note relates, George Grossmith was born into a theatrical family with three uncles who were child prodigies on the stage. His father combined courtroom journalism with frequent forays into solo entertaining, a state of affairs in which his son, in his turn, followed. Father and son made their debut as a double act in Birmingham in 1873. This followed the commercial success of ‘I am so volatile’ (tr. 2) of 1871 that was taken up by other performers and concert party promoters. It was of course the period of the Victorian ballad, home entertainment, concert parties and the light operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan. The inclusion of compositions by the latter rather stretches the sub-title of ‘The Songs of George Grossmith and Family’, but their appearance here provides a musical context and contrast with the Grossmith pieces. It can be argued too that their inclusion is fully justified by the involvement of George senior in original productions of the Savoy operas. I don’t doubt also that the support of the Sir Arthur Sullivan Society helped in the recording of these works.
The performance of works such as those included here requires the singer to have exemplary diction even when the ‘patter’ flows swiftly from tongue and lips (tr. 4). Allied to this skill must be the capacity to switch to the spoken word, and back again (tr.5), as well as varying the weight of tone and vocal colour to convey the nuances of the words. These qualities are found in abundance in Leon Berger’s interpretations and characterisations. He is well known in Gilbert and Sullivan circles, having performed all the lyric and patter roles in the oeuvre. Britain is fortunate in its tradition of fine singers such as Berger who, whilst treading the boards of Covent Garden and other ‘serious’ opera stages, do not consider it beneath their dignity to lavish their skills on musically lighter works. It is interesting to compare and contrast the equally entertaining two ballad volumes of ‘Songs My Father Taught Me’ performed by the renowned operatic lyric baritone Sir Thomas Allen (Hyperion) in terms of diction and characterisation with that here; both are excellently realised.
Those Hyperions, and the present disc, complement each other in content and the juxtaposition of the two singers can be no greater recommendation of Berger’s performance. The two songs sung by Grossmith junior, recorded in 1909, also show how true to style these performances are (trs. 20-21).
The recording is clear and well balanced and when Berger duets with himself (tr. 10) this is managed without noticeable change in the acoustic. All in all, this issue is a very worthwhile addition to the recorded stock of Victorian songs and ballads – a genre whose qualities are slowly being re-discovered.