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Arthur SULLIVAN (1842-1900) and William S GILBERT (1836-1911)
Gilbert and Sullivan operettas: HMS Pinafore (1878), The Pirates of Penzance; Patience (1881), Iolanthe (1882) The Mikado (1885), Ruddigore (1887), The Yeomen of the Guard (1888), The Gondoliers (1889)
with Richard Lewis (tenor), George Baker (baritone), Geraint Evans (baritone), Owen Brannigan (bass), Ian Wallace (bass), Elsie Morison (soprano), Pamela Bowden (mezzo), Monica Sinclair (alto)
Glyndebourne Festival Chorus
Pro Arte Orchestra/Sir Malcolm Sargent
Full cast-lists/filler track details set out at end of review
rec. 1957-63, EMI studios, Abbey Road, London, England
WARNER CLASSICS 2564 612877 [16 CDs: c.21 hrs]

Lovers of Gilbert & Sullivan will be aware of the existence of these discs. They were brought out by Sargent as rivals to the D’Oyly Carte recordings that were appearing in the ‘new’ stereo LP format.

Sargent is steeped in G&S from his time working for the D’Oyly Carte in the late 1920s and early 1930s. He recorded the first electric 78s recordings of the complete operas as 'Dr Sargent'. One would therefore assume that this later series, made in the technically advanced years of the LP, was recorded in good hands. With a proficient orchestra and Sargent’s choice of grand opera singers one would expect everything to be perfect but this proves not to be the case. Grand opera singers inexperienced with G&S and in meeting Sargent’s exacting demands for practising good diction come over with occasional artificiality. They miss the sometimes vital spontaneity that goes with the Savoy operas. Nevertheless there are excellent tracks to savour. Geraint Evans sings the patter roles in the first three recordings Mikado, Gondoliers and Yeomen nut not always with clarity. He backed out of the series, worried that his grand opera career might be undermined by an increasingly strong G&S connection. His patter roles were taken over by the very able George Baker who had made a name for himself in the same parts in the 1930s recordings by HMV. Here Baker is on top form despite an age of over 70: both diction and tone is first class and superior to Evans.

The Penguin Guide would always award three stars for these Sargent recordings whereas the D’Oyly Carte recordings under Isidore Godfrey would be awarded only 2-2 stars. That may be so, yet the interpretation is not always what one might desire. I took the matter up with Arthur Jacobs in 1995 because for me the ratings should have been swapped round. I mentioned the rather mature-sounding cast; a prominent artificiality in enunciation to aid diction; and pedantic pacing of some of the numbers, particularly the opening of “The threatened cloud” from Mikado and “Happily coupled are we” from Ruddigore, marked at a sprightly Andante giojoso. I asked whether it could be because in Sargent’s 78 days he had to cram a vocal number to fit one 12 inch side of 4 minutes, and so that with a lack of time urgency, could it have caused him to take a leisurely approach. Jacobs pondered and suggested it was probably the larger Glyndebourne chorus that provided the ‘icing on the cake’ to merit the higher rating. Was I conditioned by constantly hearing the D’Oyly Carte versions as comparators? This is a point with which some of my contemporaries might agree. The only difficulty in rating these recordings is whether one considers that the melody line and the energy of the performances becomes lost when taken ‘molto legato’. By contrast, in tracks like the Iolanthe overture, there is excellent playing. The necessary changes of pace at the end are perfectly timed and cannot be bettered.

The line-up of singers - friends of Sargent - are grand opera stalwarts, the exception being George Baker who, as already stated, was brought in for his excellent diction. The singing is good but rarely outstanding. Maybe their style of training lacks the spontaneity of the D’Oyly Carte singers who, in comparison, seem to give a more energetic flow under Godfrey. Perhaps the Pro Arte’s crisp strings are a bonus and the wind players are well balanced. In Pinafore, the timps sadly are too forward, too ear-catching and here seem slightly sharp. Soprano, Elsie Morison comes across with all the mezzo richness of a mature voice that, despite good register, doesn’t ideally portray the lightness associated with the characters she plays. Likewise, in Iolanthe, John Cameron’s Strephon sounds more bass-baritone than baritone and must be counted rather old for a shepherd of 24. The chorus sing well and generally diction is clear, yet they are heavy in the alto section. The bridesmaids in Ruddigore’s Cornish fishing village sound more appropriate to King Ludwig’s Wagnerian court.

Having the original EMI CD transfer of Ruddigore on the shelf I listened to both to see if this Warner set had been re-mastered. I found that this series is clearly cloned from the same source master without adjustment.

The CDs are well filled, with excellent recordings from other EMI sources. Sullivan’s symphony, The Irish is a benchmark in the hands of Charles Groves to which other equally famous conductors have aspired yet failed miserably. The Cello Concerto parts were lost in a 1964 fire at the publisher’s premises (Chappells) and with painstaking effort the piece was restored by Charles Mackerras and David Mackie (former D’Oyly Carte assistant musical director). The overture tracks, recorded at the Kingsway Hall, lack sufficient treble focus, when compared to the rest of the material. One section of the Cox & Box overture is taken at a disappointing slow tempo before returning ‘a tempo’ for the ending.

Excellent notes by Andrew Lamb sets the scene admirably. They put the operas in context and give generous background to the other pieces. Succinctly written synopses (with tracking) for each opera are provided by Arthur Jacobs. Unfortunately, the booklet track index does not mention the additional ‘filler’ works. This is the place where one would logically expect to find these details. In fact only the CD sleeve shows them. The Gracenotes (on-line) track identities do not always line up. Dunn’s overtures, for one, indicate they are conducted by Sargent.

Anyone setting out to hear what G&S is all about will not be disappointed. This amounts to a library of 140 year old British comic operas on 16 CDs, well-filled with other pieces of Sullivan’s music.

Raymond J Walker

Full Cast-Lists
HMS Pinafore
George Baker (Sir Joseph), John Cameron (Captain Corcoran), Richard Lewis (Ralph Rackstraw), Owen Brannigan (Dick Deadeye), Elsie Morison (Josephine), Marjorie Thomas (Hebe), Monica Sinclair (Buttercup)
Trial by Jury
George Baker (The Learned Judge), Elsie Morison (The Plaintiff), John Cameron (Counsel for the Plaintiff), Richard Lewis (The Defendent), Owen Brannigan (The Usher)
The Pirates of Penzance
George Baker (Major-General Stanley), James Mulligan (The Pirate King), Richard Lewis (Frederic), Own Brannigan (Sergeant of Police), Elsie Morison (Mabel), Heather Harper (Edith), Marjorie Thomas (Kate), Monica Sinclair (Ruth), John Cameron (Samuel)
George Baker (Bunthorne), John Cameron (Grosvenor), Elsie Morison (Patience), Marjorie Thomas (Angela), Monica Sinclair (Jane), Elizabeth Harwood (Saphir), Heather Harper (Ella), Alexander Young (Duke), John Shaw (Colonel), Trevor Anthony (Major)
George Baker (The Lord Chancellor), Ian Wallace (Mountararat), Alexander Young (Tolloller), Owen Brannigan (Private Willis), John Cameron (Strephon), Elsie Morison (Phyllis), Monica Sinclair (Queen of the Fairies), Marjorie Thomas (Iolanthe), April Cantelo (Celia), Heather Harper (Leila)
The Mikado
Owen Brannigan (The Mikado), Richard Lewis (Nanki-Poo), Sir Geraint Evans (Ko-Ko), Ian Wallace (Pooh-Bah), John Cameron (Pish-Tush), Elsie Morison (Yum-Yum), Marjorie Thomas (Pitti-Sing), Jeanette Sinclair (Peep-Bo), Monica Sinclair (Katisha)
George Baker (Robin Oakapple/Sir Ruthven), Richard Lewis (Richard Dauntless), Owen Brannigan (Sir Despard), Harold Blackburn (Old Adam), Elsie Morison (Rose Maybud), Pamela Bowden (Mad Margaret), Monica Sinclair (Dame Hannah), Elizabeth Harwood (Zorah), Joseph Rouleau (Sir Roderic)
The Yeomen of the Guard
Richard Lewis (Colonel Fairfax), John Cameron (Sergeant Meryll), Sir Geraint Evans (Jack Point), Owen Brannigan (Wilfred Shadbolt), Marjorie Thomas (Phoebe), Monica Sinclair (Dame Carruthers), Denis Dowling (Sir Richard Cholmondley), Doreen Hume (Kate), Alexander Young (First Yeoman), John Carol Case (Second Yeoman)
The Gondoliers
Sir Geraint Evans (The Duke of Plaza-Toro), Monica Sinclair (The Duchess of Plaza-Toro), Edna Graham (Casilda), Owen Brannigan (Don Alhambra), Elsie Morison (Giannetta), Marjorie Thomas (Tessa), Richard Lewis (Marco Palmieri), John Cameron (Giuseppe Palmieri), Alexander Young (Luiz/Francesco), James Milligan (Antonio/Giorgio), Stella Hitchens (Fiametta), Helen Watts (Giulia/Ines)

Filler tracks:
Overture di Ballo (1870) BBC SO/Sargent. rec. 1958, Kingsway Hall, London
Overtures: The Sorcerer (1877), Cox & Box (1869),
Introduction: Princess Ida (1884), Overture in C In Memoriam (1866) CBSO/Dunn, rec. 1972, Birmingham University
Symphony in G, The Irish (1863) RLPO/Grove, rec. 1968.
Incidental music (excerpts): The Tempest (1861), The Merchant of Venice suite (1871), CBSO/Sir Vivian Dunn, rec. 1972
Cello Concerto in D major (1866), arr. Mackerras and Mackie, Julian Lloyd Webber (cello); LSO/Mackerras, rec. 1986, EMI studios, Abbey Road, London, England



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