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Arthur SULLIVAN (1842-1900)
Iolanthe, comic opera (1882)
Libretto by William S. Gilbert (1836-1911]
Martyn Green, Lord Chancellor (bar); Ann Drummond-Grant, Iolanthe (mezzo); Margaret Mitchell, Phyllis (sop); Ella Halman, Fairy Queen (cont); Alan Styler, Strephon (bar); Leonard Osborn, Tolloller (tenor); Fisher Morgan, Mountararat (bass).
D'Oyly Carte chorus and orchestra/Isidore Godfrey
Pineapple Poll arr. Charles Mackerras (1951)
Sadler's Wells Orchestra/Mackerras
Rec. 1951, Sadler’s Wells
NAXOS 8.110231-32 [58.36+73.07]



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This set is taken from 78 record matrices and was released in the form of Decca LPs in their LK label series. The recording is taken from amongst the last conventionally cut 78-rpm wax masters made in the UK. There are two other CD releases of this recording by Regis and Sounds on CD (without the Pineapple Poll coupling) and all are well engineered.

Arthur Sullivan was Britain’s most important composer of the Victorian age, having written a symphony, oratorios, songs, hymns and theatre music. He received a classical musical training, first as a chorister and later as a 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 and songs with good orchestration: he even inaugurated a unique genre of English operetta.

With witty lyrics by W.S. Gilbert, the Gilbert & Sullivan comic operas have stood the test of time and are as popular today as they were 100 years ago. The partnership between Gilbert and Sullivan was initiated by the enterprising theatre manager, Richard D'Oyly Carte. Carte brought them together to write fourteen comic operas, the seventh of which was Iolanthe.

This recording was released in the Festival of Britain year (1951) and much effort was made to ensure that the quality of production was fitting for the time. As with previous recordings, the orchestra is an augmented theatre orchestra and although the playing is excellent in every way the strings lack that fullness we expect nowadays. Under the direction of D'Oyly Carte's Isidore Godfrey we are given a lively reading of the score and more sensitivity expressed than is sometimes found in the Sargent EMI recordings.

Of the cast, Martyn Green, Ella Halman, Ann Drummond-Grant and Leonard Osborn were long-serving Savoyards who played these roles on stage both pre-war and post-war. Margaret Mitchell, Alan Styler and Fisher Morgan joined in the 1940s. Thus we have an experienced stage-performing cast brought into the studio for this recording; all names remembered with affection. We occasionally hear how Martyn Green was better than Peter Pratt or John Reed in the part, but all three had their qualities, bringing different interpretations to the role of Lord Chancellor. Green had replaced Henry Lytton who in the last decade of his career was a poor singer. In the earlier 78s HMV-Sargent electric recordings (c.1930) Lytton's parts were played by George Baker who had never appeared on stage yet offered excellent diction and clarity of voice. It is probably the contrast with Lytton that has caused Green to be remembered so warmly. Like Baker, his musicality and diction are good. Margaret Mitchell as a pert, warm-toned soprano conveys the innocence of Phyllis convincingly. Ann Drummond-Grant, wife of Godfrey, was one of the longest serving members of the company by the time of this recording. Starting out as a soprano her pleasant characteristic voice thickened to a mezzo in the 1940s, and in the late 1950s before an ‘early death’ to a contralto. Her velvety timbre and attention to dynamics as captured here are again enjoyed. Leonard Osborn is a tenor who disappoints or perhaps one who will be appreciated. A harsh vibrato marred some of his 1930s recordings but this had tended to soften by the time of this recording. Yet he still annoys when he glides to a high note and still holds a vibrato. This provides an odd braying effect that hits a raw nerve. Ella Halman is a formidable Fairy Queen with wide compass and clear diction.

By the early 1950s opera recordings enjoyed a wider acoustic than the characteristic 'box effect' of earlier electric recordings. Here it is not as spacious as the Waterford and Walthamstow Town Hall locations and the recording did not enjoy the miking techniques that were to become a hallmark of the later Decca recordings.

A wider acoustic is provided for the ballet recording. Here, the tracks are recognised as taken from LP masters as the surface noise on tr.15 confirms. This LP transcription is not ideal, there being a shift of middle registers to the upper end of the spectrum. This seems to thin the sound quality.

A word should be said about Pineapple Poll. In late 1950 Sullivan's music had come out of copyright and Charles Mackerras had the brilliant idea of interweaving some of the best themes into a ballet based on one of Gilbert's Bab Ballads. There are two recordings avaiable and both are by Mackerras. The first was issued on the Pye LP label (1951). What is generally not pointed out is that the later one, recorded in 1982 [and currently coupled with Princess Ida on Decca 436 810-2] contains subtle differences in orchestration from the earlier recording, mainly phrases of decoration in the brass and woodwind sections that, in my opinion, is in places overdone. Consequently, this recording provides an enjoyable listening experience.

A note about the transcription: it seems to be taken from 78 matrices rather than early tape masters.

Decca was slow in converting to tape principally because of fickle reliability of the medium at the time of its introduction. Pianissimo passages contain a distant (muted) roar on some of the matrices. This is a problem that no modern sound engineer can overcome. In the Pineapple Poll suite some electronic sharpening has been provided to lift the treble frequencies. It tends to give the strings a brittle edge in the high registers, but is not overdone and certainly helps widen the frequency response.

Further information: Bk. Gilbert & Sullivan, Ainger (Routledge 2003) with review at: http://www.musicweb-international.com/classrev/2003/Mar03/ainger.htm

Other CDs of this 1951 Iolanthe recording:

Pearl (coupled with Patience): GEMS0163

Regis (coupled with Pineapple Poll): RRC2049

Sounds on CD: VGS 219

Raymond Walker



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