This set is taken from 78 record sets, which were later
released as Decca LPs, LK4008-9 and LK4001. These recordings are perhaps
the last batch of conventionally cut 78-rpm wax masters in the UK.
Arthur Sullivan by 1870 had a reputation as
Great Britain’s most important composer of the age; with theatre music,
a symphony, oratorio, and numerous songs and hymns to his name. Sullivan
had received a classical musical training, first as a chorister and
later as student at the Royal Academy of Music, London. A Mendelssohn
scholarship took him to Leipzig where he was immersed in the music of
the German romantics. 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.
In relation to operetta, Cox & Box (1866)
was followed by a now forgotten Thespis (1871); the latter being
the first operetta composed in conjunction with W.S. Gilbert. Trial
by Jury followed four years later and sealed their claim to fame.
Its witty lyrics, colourful music and memorable tunes not only cemented
the partnership between Gilbert and Sullivan but also caught the attention
of an enterprising theatre manager, one Richard D'Oyly Carte. Carte
brought them together to write fourteen comic operas, the fourth of
which was The Pirates of Penzance.
Trial by Jury was billed as a short dramatic
cantata and was generally played as a curtain raiser. Set in a courtroom,
it comically follows the trial of a breach of promise of marriage. The
case cannot be successfully resolved and so ends with the judge deciding
to marry the bride himself. The plaintiff (a soprano), the defendant
(a tenor) and judge (baritone) all play key parts in developing the
plot. Diction is of the essence since there is no spoken dialogue.
This Pirates of Penzance recording retains all
the cuts used in the stage performances (necessary due to the practice
of running Pirates with Trial as a double bill). So in
this Naxos reissue we have the complete evening's theatre entertainment
as used to be presented by the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company.
The two cuts are:
1. Omission of the policemen's chant following Mabel's
"Frederic was to have led you to death and glory".
2. A missing second verse to song, "Sighing softly
to the River"
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 began to release both
78 records, and LP versions (initially for the American market).
To lovers of G&S, the tempi of Sullivan’s musical
numbers is all important. It has been shown time and time again that
if certain numbers are taken too slowly the melody drops out: many conductors,
both professional and amateur, often fail to appreciate this. I mention
the fact because Isidore Godfrey, D’Oyly Carte’s resident musical director,
seems to understand Sullivan’s music particularly well and in his many
Decca recordings over the decades the tempi are usually spot on. Decca
doesn’t always provide him with a large orchestra yet the playing is
very acceptable. In this series of Decca recordings there is a noticeable
reduction in the strings section and the acoustics are somewhat boxy
compared with the more spacious later Decca recordings made at Watford
Although slow tempi were never evident in the Sargent’s
1930s recordings, Sargent’s later recordings are sometimes dull and
lethargic. On this matter I put a theory to Arthur Jacobs (biographer
on Sullivan) that in the days of 78s Sargent had to fit musical sections
into a mere 4’30" (one 12" side), so could it be that the
luxury of LPs allowed him to take things at a more relaxed pace and
this he sometimes took to excess.
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 artists were often the focus of
interest and allegiance by the British public as was their dedication
The singers we hear are those who delivered their roles
on stage and are thus memorable to the followers of G&S. There would
be practically no break between touring and a week in the recording
studio so I am amazed that the voices don’t sound tired.
Muriel Harding sings her roles here with lyrical charm
and good phrasing. Some commentators have referred to a certain nervousness
in the Trial recording: I don’t recognise any serious defect
in this connection, however. The tenor, Leonard Osborn, was a singer
one either likes or dislikes. He sings confidently and has a wide range,
but he has a habit of using vibrato on short notes that becomes an irritation.
His top notes are sometimes forced. Darrell Fancourt was a favourite
amongst the D’Oyly Carte stars. Not only does he possess a velvety resonant
bass tone but also has a relaxed vibrato that is particularly elegant.
Martyn Green played the patter role (Major General Stanley) during the
thirties and appeared in the Mikado film (1939). Always a favourite
in this role with collectors of singers his voice will help to continue
to sell this recording. In the Pirates he amply conveys the pomposity
of the General’s character and provides crisp diction for his patter
song lyrics. Of Richard Watson (Judge), I find his voice rather strained
and he doesn’t always cleanly hit his high notes. Donald Harris and
Leslie Rands both contribute competently.
The Naxos notes gives the matrix numbers of the masters
but it is not made clear that they refer to 78s. The recording sessions
were cut as 78 masters - usually with two takes per side. Although by
1949 the tape recorder had been invented, Decca did not rush to this
form of mastering, as the reliability of tape had not been fully tested.
It is well known that the oxide coating of early tapes was not well-bonded
to its plastic base and could cause build-ups of oxide powder on the
recorder heads. This would then give an accumulating high frequency
This Naxos transcription has clarity of treble yet
lacks bass and a noticeable pitch error has been rectified. The notes
should have explained the important fact that these recordings are mono
although I suppose the declared recording date would leave little doubt
There are two other, slightly dearer, recently released
sets with the same coupling of the same recordings, but taken from the
LPs and not the 78s used here.
One is the ‘Sounds on CD’ issue (2000), Cat. no. VGS214.
The equalisation gives a preferred warmer tone and wider frequency range
to the transcription. As with the Naxos recording, care has been taken
to correct a very noticeable pitch change between record sides in Trial.
Generally, the pitch is slightly lower than that of the above recording
but is not noticeable if one is not carrying out side-by-side comparisons.
Decca’s original transfers to LP of these two operettas were not taken
from commercially pressed shellac records. Decca used special acetate
pressings, which provided a useful reduction in surface noise. The LP
master disc was cut using these acetates on transcription units playing
alternately to allow one continuous take of 25 or so minutes. Sound
recording engineer, Chris Webster, has compared these 78 and LP transcriptions
side by side and has found that the takes used for the LP releases of
Trial and The Pirates are not necessarily the same as
those used for the 78 sets.
Another recent issue (2001) is Pearl GEMS 0097. I do
not have these discs to hand but judging by their expertise in transcription
of the Broadway series they should be worth considering.