, November 2007
The virtue of listing the contents in this 2 CD selection entitled ‘The best of Gilbert and Sullivan’ is that you can decide if your favourite items, or enough of them, are included. I also indicate in the heading where musical numbers directly follow one another. The selection is reasonably representative but a little less even across the operettas than the comparable 2 CD ‘The very best of Gilbert and Sullivan’ (Decca 460 0102, available in the UK,selection details ) taken from the stereo D’Oyly Carte recordings of the following generation. Items I was surprised were not in this Naxos compilation are Yum-Yum’s ‘The sun whose rays are all ablaze’ in The Mikado and the Duke of Plaza-Toro’s song, ‘In enterprise of martial kind’ in The Gondoliers.
The 1948 Pinafore overture shows this is a smooth CD transfer of bright, clean sound though not especially full bodied. The orchestra is better at the faster material, the oboe cantilena somewhat fragile. The featured principals are characterful. Ella Halman’s ‘I’m called Little Buttercup’(tr. 3) gleeful rather than absolutely pure voiced, Leslie Rands’ Captain Corcoran very spruce and thoroughly likeable in his suave public relations if clearly getting on a bit. Rands was brought back for this recording having retired the year before at the age of 47! Fittingly most magnetic is Martyn Green’s Sir Joseph Porter. His parlando style in ‘When I was a lad’ (tr. 5) is unique and distinctive, wonderfully droll and totally believable. The spoken element subtly increases and the tempo slightly decreases as the song progresses to point up its end message.
To compare the stereo D’Oyly Carte Pinafore dating from 1959 in the Decca compilation, the sound is livelier, the orchestra more spirited, the skill of the accompaniment more appreciable, the chorus slightly fuller and firmer. But the principals aren’t necessarily better than their predecessors, just different. Gillian Knight’s Buttercup is stylishly phrased, Jeffrey Skitch’s Captain courtly and John Reed’s Sir Joseph of mellifluous bonhomie. These later singers are more laid back. There’s less emphasis on articulation which gives the earlier singers more character.
To return to these, the 1951 Patience fields a very lively orchestra and some confident principals. Margaret Mitchell’s Patience is a touch prim but rather more arch and brings Joyce Grenfell to mind. Darrell Fancourt’s Colonel oozes pacy self-assurance even recording at the age of 65. Martyn Green’s Bunthorne is most memorable with a dramatic, sly recitative and suave ‘If you’re anxious for to shine’ (tr. 11) in which he sings more than usually and pleasantly too. He’s back to his parlando in ‘So go to him and say to him’ (tr. 13), with a portly Ella Halman’s Lady Jane an excellent foil. In between Alan Styler is a straightforward, fairly dry Grosvenor in his song of whimsy. Finally the quintet introduces in this context as soloists a reasonably fresh Neville Griffiths as the Duke and an avuncular Peter Pratt as the Major.
Peter Pratt understudied and succeeded Martyn Green. He gives us the title character’s song of The Sorcerer in the 1953 recording in a cultivated, very personable manner with just a touch of grisliness to stimulate you in the central section but more to excite you as the flurries of quavers towards the end of the first and closing sections create a feel of runaway momentum. You wonder how he gets his tongue around it all. John Reed, who understudied and succeeded Peter Pratt, uses more parlando in his 1966 recording featured in the Decca 2 CD set mentioned above, with more humour, more control of diction and phrasing and a more melodramatic central section, but Pratt has a certain inscrutability that I find more attractive.
Next comes a selection from Ruddigore from 1950 where Martyn Green outshines his colleagues. In ‘I know a youth who loves a little maid’ (tr. 16) he provides a stylishly understated, affecting picture of the lovelorn and bashful alongside which the greater projection and up front emotion of Margaret Mitchell is rather a jarring contrast. In the patter trio, ‘My eyes are fully open’ (tr. 19), he maintains rapid delivery without missing out any words, which is more than Ann Drummond-Grant and Richard Watson quite achieve though the trio ensemble has splendid aplomb. Between these two items we get the fa-la soloists’ quartet and chorus part of the Act 1 finale, a madrigalian manner for the soloists, neatly done and showcase for lusty choral style, delivered unaccompanied if not with the utmost polish. Then comes the ghost’s high noon in which Darrell Fancourt shows animated directness, full atmosphere revealed by the chorus and orchestra and the soloist’s “grisly, grim goodnight”.
From the 1954 Princess Ida comes just King Gama’s ‘If you give me your attention’ (tr. 20) in which Peter Pratt starts off quite genially but the unctuousness soon takes over. Music and diction are skilfully matched with crusty relish. In comparison John Reed’s 1965 version in the previously mentioned Decca compilation is more melodramatically spat out parlando. Pratt gives you more of the music and in doing so reveals something more reptilian about the character.
CD1 ends with a more generous selection from the 1950 Gondoliers. It finds Leonard Osborn and Alan Styler light, sunny and gallant in their opening duet. In ‘When a merry maiden marries’ (tr. 22) Yvonne Dean has a fresh, smiling, carefree voice but she’s too close-miked or over projects. In the excerpt from the Act 1 finale we hear the pearlier voice but more prim diction of Muriel Harding. Leonard Osborn pours forth the high notes of ‘Take a pair of sparkling eyes’ (tr. 24) as if his life depended on it but also offers a meditative quality at times. The chorus gives us a heady, pacy Cachucha and the orchestra is spirited. ‘In a contemplative fashion’ (tr. 26) neatly moves from the four lovers in unison via one voice in turn over the others to all chaotically independent while the opening of the finale, which goes with a swing, benefits from a voice added above the rest, Margaret Mitchell with a fine top B flat.
CD2 begins with the 1951 Iolanthe and an Overture in which the orchestra shows a greasepaint alertness and nuance and has a satisfyingly cleanly articulated clarinet solo in its slow section. The Peers enter in sprightly fashion and their chorus is hearty in voice. Here simultaneously is both splendour and comedy. Fisher Morgan provides an authoritative, sturdy, but also whimsical sentry’s song in its benignly thoughtful way. Eric Thornton is similarly cogent with a more heroic voice appropriate to his nostalgic patriotic sentiments. The outstanding item is again from Martyn Green, this time with the nightmare song, a masterly exhibition of the creation of animation with total clarity of diction and with neither breathlessness nor any apparent haste. The trio ‘If you go in’ (tr. 6) is graced by fine, lightly lilting ensemble and festive orchestra.
Trial by Jury from 1949 is represented by the Judge’s Song in a performance which finds Richard Watson, the chorus and orchestra all equally robust. John Reed’s 1963 recording in the Decca compilation mentioned earlier is less aristocratic, more conversational but Watson enjoys himself more and shows more variety with touches of parlando, especially in characterizing the rich attorney.
The 1949 Pirates selection begins with Leonard Osborn’s Frederic at least attempting lyrical ardour to overcome the rather prim chorus of maidens but he’s outclassed by the purer voiced coloratura of Muriel Harding’s Mabel, or rather a snatch of it because as you’re looking forward to ‘Poor wandr’ing one’ the excerpt ends. However, we get more of Mabel in ‘When the foeman bares his steel’ scene and for ‘Ah! Leave me not to pine’ (tr.11), evidence that Harding’s is the finest of the ladies’ voices of this period. In the latter Osborn matches her tenderness, if with rather wilting tone. Meanwhile Martyn Green’s Major-General song displays his customary ease of delivery and affability. There’s an even more genial quality about Richard Watson’s Sergeant of Police. He exudes enjoyment in his famous song without needing the comic exaggeration of the text Owen Brannigan, admittedly memorably, brings to his 1967 recording on the Decca compilation referred to earlier. In 1949, on the other hand, the pirates’ chorus of ‘cat-like tread’ is a good deal more spirited than the orchestra.
The three items from the 1950 Yeomen make sombre listening. ‘I have a song to sing, O’ (tr. 14) is an elegy for lost opportunity, Martyn Green and Muriel Harding living through unhappiness and facing it with resolution, yet the sadness lingers. Even ‘Oh! a private buffoon is a light-hearted loon’ (tr. 15) becomes an increasingly bitter account of rules for jesters. Green begins very droll, stylishly incorporates parlando and ends in withering philosophising with the melody dead. The quartet ‘When a wooer goes a-wooing’ (tr. 16) is all soft focus and gentle sorrow, sensitively done with Green by his closing solo on the edge of tears.
Enjoyment is restored in the selection from the 1950 Mikado. Leonard Osborn is in rather bleating mode as the wand’ring minstrel except for the more bracingly forthright military and nautical sections but a breezy chorus introduces the Lord High Executioner and Martyn Green delivers his list of those who won’t be missed with the elegant sparkle of an engagingly conversational manner. The three little maids from school, Margaret Mitchell, Joyce Wright and Joan Gillingham, are clearly having fun. Darrell Fancourt’s Mikado is admirably direct, seeming larger than life in voice and personality, crowned by a mighty laugh and wheeze before the refrain returns in ‘A more humane Mikado’ (tr. 21). Osborn has a similarly straight approach in ‘The flowers that bloom in the spring’ (tr. 22) but it’s subverted by Green’s different tone which takes in what sounds like ventriloquism for his ‘Tra la’s. Green shows himself more intimately and humanely in the Tit-willow song, delivered in simple, unaffected manner without caricature before the finale sweeps along.
To sum up, this Naxos Historical selection gives a fair perspective of the range of interpretative quality of the Decca mono series of recordings made by D’Oyly Carte between 1948 and 1954. The recordings themselves, and copies used for the transfers, also vary. Curiously, although there’s a spread of dates on both CDs, there’s generally more surface noise, greater density and less feel of restoration on CD2 than CD1. In fully scored items chorus and orchestra are very much subordinate to the soloists. The value of the recordings may be thought to be that they are closer to the original performances. Martyn Green understudied Henry Lytton who had understudied George Grossmith, the originator of most of the principal comedian roles. But equally they show how that understudying was simply a grounding on which artists could place their own distinctive stamp. The glory of this selection is the inimitability of Martyn Green, Peter Pratt, Darrell Fancourt and Richard Watson.