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Sir W S GILBERT (1836-1911) and Sir Arthur SULLIVAN (1842-1900)
The Mikado (1885)
Darrell Fancourt (bass) – The Mikado; Derek Oldham (tenor) – Nanki-Poo; Henry Lytton (baritone) – Ko-Ko; Leo Sheffield (baritone) – Pooh-Bah; George Baker (baritone) – Pish-Tush; Elsie Griffin (soprano) – Yum-Yum; Aileen Davies, Doris Hemingway. Beatrice Elburn (mezzos) – (sharing) Pitti-Sing; Beatrice Elburn (mezzo) – Peep-Bo; Bertha Lewis (mezzo) – Katisha
Light Opera Orchestra & Chorus/Harry Norris
rec. Small Queen’s Hall, London, 8, 19, 22, 26 November, 6 December 1926, ADD, mono
PRISTINE AUDIO PACO 087 [48:30 + 33:29]

This pair of CDs gives you four firsts: the first complete recording of the music of The Mikado, the first Mikado recorded by the D’Oyly Carte Company, the first electric recording, that is captured by microphone rather than singers having to project into a recording horn, and its first issue on CD. Are there pitfalls to such pioneering? I compared the other early D’Oyly Carte recording available on CD, that made with the New Promenade Orchestra conducted by Isidore Godfrey (Naxos Historical 8.110176-77). This 1950 recording is smoother and free of 1926’s surface noise. The orchestra and Godfrey’s conducting are superior, pointing better the nuances of Sullivan’s orchestration. On the other hand, Norris’s generally more pacy approach, particularly in the songs, is attractive. Sometimes the excitement of the delivery of the words is on the very edge of comprehension. Listen, for instance, to ‘There is beauty in the bellow of the blast’. You can do this for free on the Pristine Audio website sample as part of a generous 11 minute selection of tracks - the others I asterisk later in this review. What struck me most about the 1926 recording was its greater sense of spontaneity and projection. This might be because the singers were still to some extent projecting as if under the old recording method or adopting their usual stage practice, or excited by the greater flexibility provided by the new means of recording. Whatever the reason, the 1950 recording sounds more routine.

In his inlay card note to this 1926 set, producer and audio restoration engineer Mark Obert-Thorn doesn’t mince words about the uneven quality of and some distortion present in the recording, especially with the items recorded on 6 December. Yet two of these feature in the selection sample, ‘Three little maids’ and ‘On a tree by a river’*. This suggests a belief, I’d say justified, that the quality of the performances outweighs the deficiencies of the recording.

The overture, incidentally not by Sullivan, is nothing more than a medley of the operetta’s tunes. Harry Norris finds a pleasing variety of tempi to suit them and the music’s changes of mood. The opening men’s chorus is lively, firm in diction and well balanced. Derek Oldham is a courtly Nanki-Poo with a golden, lyrical tone though at the age of 38 at the time of this recording he was a touch old for the role and had a marked vibrato. All the same he’s preferable to the younger but more shallow voice of Leonard Osborn in 1950 and Oldham’s very soft top G ‘lullaby’ close to ‘A wand’ring minstrel I’ is very sensitively done. The 1926 use of tuba to boost the wind bass rather than bassoon is a habit retained from pre-electric recording and is a little incongruous here, though more appropriate to the broader comedy of Ko-Ko’s songs. George Baker’s Pish-Tush has a light, smiling voice for ‘Our great Mikado, virtuous man’, while Leo Sheffield’s Pooh-Bah in the ensemble ‘Young man despair, likewise go to’ introduces an element of archness. Sheffield is pretty much over-the-top throughout. His treatment of the melismata on ‘Long life to you’ in the Act 1 finale is uproarious. But might it pall on repeated playings? No, I think not.

Henry Lytton’s Ko-Ko, that’s him in the cover picture, is quite different to Martyn Green’s in 1950 which is the model for interpretation down to Richard Suart today. Green is urbane, suave, sophisticated. Lytton is an urchin opportunist, a bit disreputable and this more closely matches the origin of the character. Lytton uses more parlando - hovering between speech and song. He sidles in and out of it without any sense of affectation and this makes his performance, unlike Green’s, inimitable. You can hear his opening song after the chorus’s welcome, ‘Behold the Lord High Executioner’. Ko-Ko’s ‘little list’ and later the Mikado’s catalogue of punishments use Gilbert’s original text which, the inlay note diplomatically puts it, contain a ‘racial slur’. At another point in Ko-Ko’s list Gilbert’s ‘singular anomaly, the lady novelist’ has been changed to presumably the then more topical ‘prohibitionist’.

The ‘Chorus of Girls’ ‘Comes a train of little ladies’ is decidedly matronly and Norris’s accompaniment too skittish for the delicately wistful insouciance of the piece. Godfrey’s chorus is fresher and his accompaniment lighter. The 1926 ‘Three little maids from school’, even with their classic received pronunciation, have fun in a girlish way and the orchestra skips along with them. Kisses are already audible in the duet between Nanki-Poo and Yum-Yum, ‘Were you not to Ko-Ko plighted’ and there’s another addition, a nice pause added at Elsie Griffin’s top A on ‘fondly’. The Act 1 finale sees the arrival of Bertha Lewis as Katisha, a rich, imposing mezzo presence, though rather too sentimental in her brief, more human phase, ‘The hour of gladness’. She has more depth of tone than Ella Hallman in 1950 which is more memorable and expressive than Hallman’s clean focus. In 1926 as Griffin and Oldham soar in ecstasy at the climax you really feel that operetta here has become one with the grand opera it is parodying.

In Act 2 the ‘Chorus of Girls’ who ‘Braid the raven hair’ sound just as hoary as before. Griffin’s ‘The sun whose rays are all ablaze’ is a little wobbly in intonation but she takes full advantage of the Andante comodo marking, lingering at climactic points of the melody. This brings to her performance a feel of spontaneous, living experience. Margaret Mitchell in 1950, though fresher in tone, is more self-conscious and a bit shrill in her insistent manner. The madrigal, ‘Brightly dawns our wedding day’ is sung in 1926 with a refreshing lack of inhibition and the voices are well balanced. Like so much Sullivan it’s both a send-up and respectful acknowledgement of its formal origin. The entrance of the Mikado is given a slightly stilted measure to point the affectation of the ceremony. Darrell Fancourt projects with more spirit than he does in 1950. Here his laugh is jollier, his wheeze more convulsive, both elements he added to the role and have remained ever since. The 1926 glee, ‘See how the Fates’ is effective in its forthright delivery and good dynamic contrast. ‘Here’s a how-de-do’, always delivered as ‘how-d’you-do’, is very lively with Lytton’s parlando increasing as it develops.

The last three tracks can be heard on the Pristine Audio website. Ko-Ko’s ‘tit-willow’ song has character and sensitivity except for the husky falsetto he adopts for the drowned bird. Green is magical in singing the whole intimately and straight. This 1926 recording bows out in festive high spirits with the ‘Sing derry down derry’ duet between Ko-Ko and Katisha. Then comes the finale in which Yum-Yum and the chorus’ first sopranos enjoy their top B flats.

To sum up, here’s a performance and recording which is a bit rough around the edges but where it succeeds you’re grateful to experience the life and intensity of what’s undoubtedly ‘the real thing’.

Michael Greenhalgh

Previous review: John Sheppard