Arthur SULLIVAN (1842-1900) & William S GILBERT (1836-1911)
HMS Pinafore (1878)
Sir Joseph Porter – John Mark Ainsley (baritone); Ralph Rackstraw – Toby Spence (tenor); Captain Corcoran – Andrew Forster-Jenkins (baritone); Dick Deadeye – Neal Davies (bass); Bill Bobstay – Gavan Ring (baritone); Bob Becket – Barnaby Rea (baritone); Josephine – Elizabeth Watts (soprano); Buttercup – Hilary Summers (contralto); Hebe – Kitty Whately (mezzo)
Narrated by Tim Brooke-Taylor
Scottish Opera Chorus and Orchestra/Richard Egarr
rec. Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 23 August 2015. DDD
LINN CKD522 [85:00]

HMS Pinafore was the first real success of the Gilbert and Sullivan partnership in 1878 because of its catchy melody lines, clever lyrics and excellently framed stage plot. Itself a parody on the social classes of Victorian England, it has itself been parodied, adapted and re-dressed over 100 years, and its popularity doesn’t show any signs of waning. The D’Oyly Carte Opera Company kept it in front of the public’s gaze for over a 100 years. They teased out and perfected nuances from its score, diction being uppermost following Gilbert’s desire to have very word of his witty lyrics heard. That trend has continued.

This recording was made at the semi-staged performance as part of the 2015 Edinburgh International Festival where it was well received. One remembers its high standard of presentation from the BBC broadcast. It is good to see therefore that Linn have released this recording of the event. Spoken dialogue is replaced by a carefully and succinctly-tailored commentary by Tim Brooke-Taylor that does not unduly hold up the flow of musical items and leads nicely from one number to the next.

The singers are first class and well suited to their roles — Toby Spence is well-suited the tenor role of Ralph (providing a pleasing and unexaggerated falsetto to the end of his ballad, “A Maiden Fair to See”. John Mark Ainsley as Sir Joseph gives the character an affected aloofness with sufficient dryness to provide believable comedy. Elizabeth Watts is superbly-toned and sings Josephine’s arias in a charming manner. The rest of the cast do equal justice, with soloists and chorus singing with excellent tonal balance, energy and commitment under Richard Egarr’s leadership.

The whole presentation is well-rehearsed and the orchestra is excellent. Occasionally the brass and certainly ‘that delicately modulated instrument’, the timpani, are occasionally heavy. It was nice to see that Scottish Opera follow the D’Oyly Carte with the need for excellent diction, but occasionally I felt Josephine could have annunciated better; sadly she sacrifices diction at the expense of maintaining her luscious tone yet the lyrics are important. In many a recording we find there are woodwind lines that fail to come across, but here there is absolute clarity from every section thanks to the sensitive engineering and balance by Philip Hobbs.

G&S enthusiasts who probably have a number of recordings of Pinafore will be interested in any differences they may find in this high quality recording. The reading of the score is very much as expected and its brisk pace is similar to that of Isidore Godfrey’s benchmark recording of HMS Pinafore [Decca 473 6382]. The sprightly overture has a repeated section of twenty bars at the end. There are a few adjustments to the pace of the score; some of which work while others don’t. We have to remember that the Savoy Opera label of ‘comic opera’ is in fact operetta in style so any touch of Grand opera is out of place. For this reason I cannot appreciate any logic in stretching out recitatives to become laboured, or to introduce an Italianate operatic pause before the start of a second verse (other than a patter song). Likewise, the Captain’s multi-note coloratura-style “Hold” sounds eccentrically odd and totally out of place. Such effects need to contribute but here interrupt the flow and rhythm that Sullivan intended. But of course there are alterations that also contribute to the listener’s enjoyment.

The sailors’ choruses convey much spirit with their slightly faster pace and sometimes ‘choppy’ (not quite staccato) delivery. A few of the playouts contain accelerations that were a habit of Herman Finck and Edwardian Music Hall. One that is introduced to the splendidly sung Act I finale and works well; yet here the effect is spoilt by an over-long held note of the penultimate chord. The others I am less sure about. Sullivan’s music is expected to be played ‘a tempo’, unless otherwise directed, so ideas of any 21st century re-interpretation won’t impress anyone who already knows this music. These changes are compensated for with a newly-devised four-chord sequence at the end of the Act II finale which sounds well to my ears.

The CD is attractively presented in a French-style printed card case with booklet that contains excellent notes by Dr David Russell Hulme, plus a full synopsis. The soloists are only credited with small photo (their biographies have to be pulled from the Linn website and not all of them are listed). This is certainly a worthwhile recording to consider.

Raymond J Walker


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