Gilbert and Sullivan: HMS Pinafore (CD review)

Also, Trial by Jury. George Baker, John Cameron, Richard Lewis, Elsie Morison, Marjorie Thomas, Monica Sinclair. Sir Malcolm Sargent, Pro Arte Orchestra and Glyndebourne Festival Chorus. EMI 50999 0 95087 2 9 (2-disc set).

When you're one of the oldest record companies in the world, you ought to trot out some of your best material for rerelease from time to time. People expect it, especially people who haven't heard of it before or couldn't afford it the first time(s) around. Such is the case with this 2011 two-disc reissue from EMI of Gilbert and Sullivan's HMS Pinafore and Trial by Jury, originally recorded in 1958 and 1960 respectively. They've been around on LP, tape, and CD before, and I suspect we still haven't heard the last of them.

The show horse, naturally, is HMS Pinafore, the comic opera that librettist Sir W.S. Gilbert (1836-1911) and composer Sir Arthur Sullivan (1842-1900) premiered in 1878. It is, of course, the satiric tale of a poor seaman who falls in love with a sea captain's daughter, but they cannot marry because he is low born and she is of the upper classes. The plot allowed the composers to poke fun at the British aristocratic caste system of the late nineteenth century as well as lampoon various character types. Tenor Richard Lewis sings the part of the fresh-faced able seaman Ralph Rackstraw; baritone George Baker is the pompous Rt. Hon. Sir Joseph Porter, KCB (First Lord of the Admiralty); bass Owen Brannigan is the nefarious able seaman Dick Deadeye; baritone John Cameron is the commander of the Pinafore, Captain Corcoran; and soprano Elsie Morison is the captain's daughter, Josephine. They and the rest of the cast are a pleasure as well.

Sir Malcolm Sargent's EMI recording came around at about the same time as Decca's stereo recording with conductor Isidore Godfrey, the New Symphony Orchestra of London, and the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company, which, with its zest and enthusiasm, tended to overshadow Sargent's version. Alongside Godfrey's reading, Sargent's interpretation does take the music a tad more seriously, yet it manages to convey most of the humorous, deadpan liveliness the music requires, too. Not that Sargent presents the tunes in any high-handed or weighty style, you understand; he simply presents them as genuinely thoughtful, entertaining melodies, not just lightweight music-hall ditties. In fact, the knock I've heard against Sargent's presentation of the work has sometimes been that he offers it in too operatic, too somber, a manner. Maybe so, at least measured against Godfrey's more rollicking, freewheeling presentation. Nevertheless, while Sargent's reading may not project all the vitality of Godfrey's performance, his rendering still bubbles over with joy and enthusiasm.

The coupling on disc two is Gilbert's and Sullivan's first major success, Trial by Jury, from 1875.  It's a brief, tidy piece spoofing the British legal system. Here, Sargent uses essentially the same singers, with the addition of baritone Bernard Turgeon as the foreman of the jury. George Baker is a delight as a wholly corrupt judge, and the entire cast seem to be having a good time. If you've never heard it before, just don't expect another Pinafore. It's good, but it's not that good.

The sound in both operettas, recorded over fifty years ago, defies its age, appearing every bit as good as almost anything recorded today. It has an excellent sense of presence, with a realistic acoustic of moderate breadth and superior depth. The frequency response remains well balanced, the high end sparkling and the bass at least sufficient. The transient response is quick and vital, impact is modest, and voices are perfectly natural. One can understand every word of the soloists and chorus, without their being too bright or too forward. Compared to Decca's Godfrey recording of the same vintage, EMI's sound is a tad more veiled; still, if you didn't directly compare them, you wouldn't notice.

The two EMI discs come housed in a Digipak container, with downloadable synopses and librettos in a PDF format on disc two.


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