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Sir Arthur SULLIVAN (1842-1900) HMS Pinafore, comic opera with dialogue (1879)
Libretto by WS Gilbert
Sir Joseph Porter –John Reed (baritone) Hebe –Pauline Wales (mezzo-soprano) Captain Corcoran –Thomas Lawlor (baritone) Little Buttercup –Christine Palmer (contralto) Ralph Rackstraw –Ralph Mason (tenor) Josephine –Valerie Masterson (soprano) Dick Deadeye –John Ayldon (bass-baritone) Bob Becket – Arthur Jackson (bass) Bob Bobstay –Jon Ellison (baritone)
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/James Walker
rec. 14-15 February 1971, West Hampstead Studios, London ELOQUENCE 482 5357 [59:13 + 37:02]
First issued on the Phase 4 label in 1971, this recording has had a love/hate relationship with its audience, yet it provides a rare example of the work of James Walker as conductor and for this reason is of interest. It was the work of American Tony D’Amato, a brash producer, who introduced Decca’s gimmick of Phase 4, where focus is put on technicalities like stereo pans and effects rather than concentrating on the subtle balance between singer and orchestra.
The cast is excellent: Valerie Masterson is exquisite as Josephine and delivers her “Sad is her lot” in legato style with tenderness and much sensitivity, never forcing herself. The diction of pleasantly-toned Ralph Mason’s Ralph Rackstraw is somewhat affected to depict a lowly mariner in “A maiden fair to see”, while Thomas Lawlor makes a good Captain and Christine Palmer - a light contralto - is more appealing than the heavier contraltos of other recordings.
Walker’s fast pace promotes an energetic reading of the score especially in the Act I finale; his overture is excellent and gives the opera a cheery start. James Walker is little-known as a conductor, but he understudied Godfrey from 1964 until Godfrey retired and then became D’Oyly Carte’s musical director from 1968 until his departure in 1971. More importantly, he was previously Decca’s house producer, who produced the series of excellent D’Oyly Carte recordings of the late 50s and early 60s — they sold like hot cakes. Here, Walker combines the latent skills of producer with his musical knowledge of G&S and excellent chorus training. To me, the release has many technical short-comings, the worst being the forward-placed voices that mask Sullivan’s orchestral detail. Could James Walker, as a former Decca producer, have pointed out these balance errors and other incompetencies and so for spite the orchestra is deliberately faded down, despite the Philharmonic being one of the best orchestras available? Where singing is deliberately distant, as in “Over the bright blue sea”, an exaggerated reverberation is given that comes across as artificial. Both dialogue and soloists are closely miked as in a radio play broadcast.
In the series of Phase 4 recordings, the producer obsessively provided additional and over-the-top sound effects. Ian Bond has made an analysis of the reissues of the Phase 4 series and notes that the sound effects have been subdued in these re-issues. The acoustic is unusually dry and does not flatter the solo singing. Raucous seagulls and sea effects have been subdued in this release and exterior recording of shouts to “Present arms” has a totally different ambience that does not blend with that of the studio ambience. John Reed’s introductory song as Sir Joseph is placed so far forward that it becomes unmusical despite the extra clarity of diction. The delivery of dialogue is spoken as in a natural conversation, rather than a stage presentation, delivered with little energy or emphasis, whereas stage dialogue would have been different, I suggest. It is because of these artificialities that the recording was widely dubbed the “most detested of all D’Oyly Carte recordings”. Although the intrusive sound effect elements seem to have been successfully reduced to a tolerable level in this reissue, the balance of soloists with orchestra is far from ideal and the dry acoustic gives no evidence of “The Decca Sound’.
There are good notes by Graham Rogers on the background to the opera, its history and Italian influence, as well as fresh material on James Walker, and circumventing the well-known opera plot makes interesting reading.
Raymond J Walker
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