> Arthur Sullivan - HMS Pinafore [RW]: Classical CD Reviews- Jun2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Arthur SULLIVAN (1842-1900)
HMS Pinafore - comic opera (1878)

D'Oyly Carte Opera Company
New Promenade Orchestra/Isidore Godfrey
Rec 1949
REGIS RRC1088 [71.38]

This recording was taken from LP, which in turn was taken from the last batch of conventionally cut 78-rpm wax masters in the UK.


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Arthur Sullivan was Great Britain’s most important composer of the Victorian age. Following a style of Mendelssohn mixed with Balfe, Wallace, Offenbach, Auber and Adam he was well known for his orchestral music and parlour ballads before the famous partnership with Gilbert was cemented. As a composer he was skilled in providing catchy melodies, songs that were well orchestrated and even led to the cultivation of a new style of English operetta. This was kicked into motion with Trial by Jury, an amusing curtain-raiser with bright music. Its witty lyrics, colourful music and memorable tunes caught the attention of an enterprising theatre manager, one Richard D'Oyly Carte. Carte brought them together to write fourteen comic operas, the third of which was HMS Pinafore.

HMS Pinafore is a two act comic opera that followed the successful The Sorcerer. Gilbert’s libretto pokes fun at regimental class division and rank. Its plot surrounds a love affair between Ralph (a common sailor) and Josephine (a respectable Captain’s daughter) which is interrupted by her father’s desire to see Josephine married to Sir Joseph Porter (First Lord of the Admiralty). The affair is stamped on by the Admiral until told that the Captain and Ralph were mixed up as children and their ranks were swapped. This turn of events now puts matters in a different light for Josephine is now no Captain’s daughter but one of a common sailor instead. This will not do for the Admiral (a caricature of Nelson) and so the proposed marriage is called off. Thus, Josephine and Ralph can marry after all. The rather eccentric plot is superbly held together by Gilbert’s witticisms and Sullivan’s catchy score. The piece enjoyed a long initial London run and set the scene for greater operatic delights to be known as the Savoy Operas.

The recordings made in 1949 were amongst the first of the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company’s post-war recordings. The company had transferred their long-standing association with HMV (under Dr Sargent) in the twenties and early thirties to Decca who released this set firstly as 78 records, and later as LPs (initially for export for the American market).

To lovers of G&S, the tempi of Sullivan’s musical numbers is all important. Isidore Godfrey, D’Oyly Carte’s resident musical director, understands Sullivan’s music particularly well and in his many Decca recordings over the 1940s-60s the pace is usually spot on. Decca doesn’t always provide him with a large orchestra yet in this recording the playing is excellent. When a little over a decade later Godfrey recorded a stereo version with dialogue the Penguin Guide awarded its only rosette to Godfrey for this work. I find this performance matches well with the later one, the only reservation being the less spacious acoustics. However, the slight ‘boxiness’ to the sound here is in keeping with the acoustic dynamics one would hear in theatre surroundings and so should not be of real concern. From the well-played overture onwards one is aware of the sensitive handling of musical dynamics not noticed in the Glynebourne recordings of this vintage.

The D'Oyly Carte Opera Company existed continuously from 1877 until 1982 and had a reputation for long-serving singers of good voice and excellent diction. The singers we hear are those who delivered their roles on stage and are thus memorable to the followers of G&S as the company toured the country at this time. There would be practically no break between touring and a week in the recording studio so it is amazing that the voices don’t sound tired.

Muriel Harding is a clear-toned soprano and portrays her role as Josephine with lyrical charm and good phrasing. Slight insecurity causes some long-held high notes to waver, particularly in her second aria ‘The hours creep on apace’ The tenor, Leonard Osborn (Ralph), was a singer one either likes or dislikes. Here I find him very acceptable: he sings confidently and his habit of exaggerated vibrato is not the irritation it sometimes becomes.

The bass, Darrell Fancourt (Dick Deadeye), a favourite amongst the D’Oyly Carte stars, is not given the opportunity in this opera to convey all the qualities of his magnificent voice.

Martyn Green is D’Oyly Carte’s key patter man (Sir Joseph Porter) of this period and doesn’t disappoint: his clear diction and dry delivery is right for the part. Always a favourite in this role his involvement will help to continue to sell this recording.

Leslie Rands (Captain) gives the vocal authority one would expect from this part and Richard Walker (Boatswain’s mate) gives appropriate support for the Act I trio.

There are excellent notes by James Murray. Why can’t Decca provide this kind of detail in their notes for their current range of D’Oyly Carte recordings from which they have amassed much profit? The notes omits the masters’ matrix numbers and so it is not made clear that this is a mono recording. The recording sessions were initially cut as 78 masters, usually with two takes per side. Although by 1949 the tape recorder had been invented, Decca had not rushed into this form of mastering since the reliability of tape had not been fully tested at this time. Specially pressed acetate 78 records were used to make the LP versions with a number of transcription units set up to allow the LP master to be cut. This CD transcription from the LPs is excellently equalised with good top and bottom frequencies.

There are other CDs of this recording:

One is the ‘Sounds on CD’ Pinafore issue VGS213 (released 2000). Taken from the 78s the equalisation is good and care has been taken to reduce hiss.

Another recent issue is Pearl GEMS 0096 (released 2001).

Other releases in this series are–

The Pirates of Penzance (1949): Naxos 8.110196-7; Pearl GEM 0097; SoundsOnCD VGS 231

The Mikado (1950): Regis RRC 2041; SoundsOnCD VGS 221; Pearl GEMS 0134; Naxos 8.110176-77.

Raymond Walker

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