Like Dickens in his writing, Mackenzie in his composing uses a richly sensual vocabulary and has a sense of nobility that never loses touch with wit and good humour. They also shared a quality of sentiment of which, a century later, we tend to be fearful, confining it to Christmas. Dickens’s The Cricket on the Hearth is undoubtedly a sentimental tale but, being a Christmas story, we need not be ashamed of enjoying it or Mackenzie’s obviously delighted response to it:
I regret to say that I have to spend my holidays writing three lectures … a job which I loathe as waste of time … all the more unpalatable, as I am anxious to get at a little three-act opera ‘The Cricket on the Hearth’ which is much more to my taste and in my line.
Though full of bonhomie and with as happy an ending as could be wished for, the story is motivated by the insidious and dark passion of sexual jealousy. It is the cricket on the hearth as a symbol of domestic content that effects the magical cure. Its cheerful, insistent chirping reminds the elderly carrier, John, of his love for his much younger wife and leads him to forgive her supposed infidelity before the truth of her innocence is known to him. Mackenzie’s operetta was written ‘con e per l’amore’. The vocal score was published in Leipzig in 1901 and the overture was premiered in London in 1902, but the simultaneous appearance of a setting by Goldmark postponed Mackenzie’s chance of a production, the first being at the Royal Academy of Music in 1914. Goldmark’s setting was described tersely by the impresario Augustus Harris, who protested, ‘There isn’t any cricket, and the hearth is a German stove!’. Mackenzie makes good these deficiencies with an overture as bright as it is warm, and calling for a ‘cricket instrument’, kindly adding ‘ad lib’ to a request not easily fulfilled but duly honoured on this recording. John the Carrier’s whip also features, and the overture starts with a marvellous evocation of a kettle coming to the boil, the first line of the story being, ‘The kettle began it!’. At a party to celebrate the production, Mackenzie’s students presented him with a silver kettle pouring forth steam in the form of liquid oxygen.
Following the kettle’s introductory bubbling cross-rhythms, colourfully orchestrated in a bright G major, comes an ‘Andante espressivo’ in the warmer key of E flat, suggestive of human rather than inanimate domestic warmth. An ‘Allegro energico’ follows the carrier’s cart with rumbustious good humour and the occasional crack of the whip, but on arrival home it yields its place to a tranquil, warm-hearted tune, beautifully shaped and harmonized. A lively dotted rhythm appears, featuring splendid piccolo writing, and is brilliantly combined with its predecessors; after the return of the ‘Tranquillo’ it leads to a final celebratory ‘Maestoso’ as joyous and full-blooded as the best of Dickensian endings.
from notes by John Purser © 1995