> SULLIVAN Pirates; Trial by Jury [RW]: Classical CD Reviews- Jun2002 MusicWeb(UK)






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Arthur SULLIVAN (1842-1900)
The Pirates of Penzance, comic opera (1879)
Trial by Jury, comic operetta (1875)
D'Oyly Carte Opera Company
New Promenade Orchestra/Isidore Godfrey
Rec. 1949
NAXOS 8.110196-97 [2CDs: 113.45]

 

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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 scene from Trial by Jury includes
Leonard Osborn and Leslie Rands who made this recording

 

The Pirates of Penzance is a comic opera that followed the immensely successful HMS Pinafore. It pokes ridicule at class division and the portrayed incompetence of the British police force. Its plot concerns a pirate apprentice, Frederic, who has just become free of his indentures to his pirate band. He decides to sever his allegiance with them when interrupted by the arrival of a bevy of beautiful maidens (chorus) and their father, Major General Stanley who have strayed to this deserted rocky cove. The pirates are about to capture the girls for their wives until the General, knowing that they never capture orphans, uses this ploy to prevent capture.

When told he was born in a leap year his 21st birthday will not be reached until aged 84. A sense of duty requires Frederic to tell the Pirate King that the Major General was lying about his orphan status. The furious pirates storm the General's castle but find the police have been summoned whom they overcome in battle. All anger is resolved by declaring an allegiance to Queen Victoria and the revelation that the Pirates were once noblemen who have gone wrong. The General now has no hesitation in offering his daughters and so all is forgiven.
Both Darrell Fancourt and Martyn Green in their
Pirates roles were well known enough to the public
of the 30s to be the subject of a cartoon

 

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 Town Hall.

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 to G&S.

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 loss.

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 about that.

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.

Raymond Walker

 


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