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.


No comments:

Post a Comment

Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor ofThe $ensible Soundmagazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio StreamLine preamplifier, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my LG G7 ThinQ cell phone, which features surprisingly sophisticated audio circuitry. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job. --John J. Puccio

Contact Information

Readers with polite, courteous, helpful letters may send them to

Readers with impolite, discourteous, bitchy, whining, complaining, nasty, mean-spirited, unhelpful letters may send them to classicalcandor@recycle.bin.

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa