Friday, August 16, 2013

Preview: Working back from the "Mikado" and "Yeomen of the Guard" Overtures to "The Gondoliers"

GILBERT and SULLIVAN: The Mikado (1885): Overture

GILBERT and SULLIVAN: The Yeomen of the Guard (1888): Overture

Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, Sir Neville Marriner, cond. Philips, recorded February 1992

by Ken

If you haven't been around Sunday Classics much, you may not be aware that I take my Gilbert and Sullivan right seriously. (See, for starters, the June 2010 post "The Mikado says, 'It's an unjust world, and virtue is triumphant only in theatrical performances.'") I don't think of their run of comic masterpieces, from Trial by Jury (1875) through The Gondoliers (1889), as frothy light entertainments of about a millimeter's depth. Oh, there's plenty of froth; I don't ever want to lose sight of how funny these pieces are, or can be. But even the humor seems to me to come from a very different place, and to work in a very different way, from that imagined by an awful lof ot fans.


. . . when we're going to return to last week's subject ("Gilbert and Sullivan's gondoliers try to temper monarchy with republican equality"), that last masterpiece, The Gondoliers. In that post I tried to cover an awful lot of ground, which inevitably leaves a feeling of unfulfillment. And I thought we could start with the two versions of the Overture, which differ only in the addition, not at Sullivan's request, of some additional material at the end to bring the piece to a more robust conclusion, like those of most of the Savoy overtures. At the same time, though, isn't it curious that Sullivan's thought was precisely not to end the Overture that way? It also occurred to me that in our quick tour of the opera, we actually included hardly any of the music that is included in the Overture, and that too makes it seem worthwhile to retrace some ground.

The subject of the G-and-S overtures turns out to be fairly complex, but tonight we're dealing with three of them which, as far as I know, are start-fo-finish Sullivan's own handiwork. (For a number of the overtures he chose the material to be included, then turned the piecing together to a a trusted assistant, which still doesn't reall tell us how involved he was in their construction.) Oh yes, I guess I didn't mention that tonight we're putting two more G-and-S overtures ton the table. The Yeomen of the Guard (1888) is the opera that immediately preceded The Gondoliers, and its overture, though far from the longest of them, is the most dramatic and forceful. Then, working our way backwards, we skip over Ruddigore (1887), and go back to The Mikado (1885), always the most popular of the operas, and understandably so -- it's the best thing either Gilbert or Sullivan ever did, which to me is saying quite a lot.

We're only hearing good performances tonight, but there are different kinds, and then there are good performances and good performances. I love longtime D'Oyly Carte Opera Company music director Isidore Godfrey, unmatched for his combination of zest and poise, and I came to have considerable respect for his longest-serving successor Royston Nash, who really rose to the occasion of his complete Mikado recording, which I rank almost in a class with Godfrey's 1957 one, which as everyone knows is with the D'Oyly Carte-Decca Pirates of Penzance made around the same time the greatest of all Gilbert and Sullivan recordings. There is, by the way, no stereo Godfrey recording of the Yeomen of the Guard Overture that I'm aware of. By the time the D'Oyly Carte came to Yeomen (and then Princess Ida) in its Decca stereo traversal of the canon, Decca invited Sir Malcolm Sargent to be "guest conductor." Fortunately, the Overture from Godfrey's Decca mono Yeomen is quite well recorded.

I especially like the Marriner Yeomen Overture we've already heard -- very grand, very powerful. And I so enjoyed Sir Charles Groves's Gondoliers Overture last week that I went on to dub first his Yeomen and then his Mikado from the same EMI Studio 2 LP -- beautifully spacious, flowing performances.

But then there's Sir Malcolm Sargent, himself a D'Oyly Carte music director several decades earlier, who opened this music up in a way that no one else has in the late '50s-early '60s Gilbert and Sullivan series he did for EMI. I"m going to try to talk about this Sunday, but for now, in addition to a wonderful touch like the upward swoop in the opening flourishes of the Mikado opening, listen to the emotional resonance of his statement of "The sun whose rays are all ablaze," the first lyrical tune, in Mikado, and then the full dark power he brings to his EMI Yeomen. (As noted, Sir Malcolm subsequently rerecorded Yeomen with the D'Oyly Carte team, and I thought we should really hear both performances of the Overture. I think the EMI one is darker and grander.)

GILBERT and SULLIVAN: The Mikado (1885): Overture

Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Royston Nash, cond. Decca, recorded Jan. 10–15, 1973

New Symphony Orchestra of London, Isidore Godfrey, cond. Decca, recorded October 1957

Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, Sir Charles Groves, cond. EMI, recorded 1973

Pro Arte Orchestra, Sir Malcolm Sargent, cond. EMI, recorded May-Aug. 1956

GILBERT and SULLIVAN: The Yeomen of the Guard (1888): Overture

New Promenade Orchestra, Isidore Godfrey, cond. Decca, recorded July 18, 1950

Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, Sir Charles Groves, cond. EMI, recorded 1973

Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Sir Malcolm Sargent, cond. Decca, recorded Apr. 5-11, 1964

Pro Arte Orchestra, Sir Malcolm Sargent, cond. EMI, recorded Dec. 10–14, 1957


As noted, we return to the Gondoliers Overture and The Gondoliers, and maybe dip a little into Mikado and Yeomen, perhaps trying to hear: What did Sir Malcolm Sargent hear that hardly anybody else does?

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