Sunday, June 06, 2010

Sunday Classics: The Mikado says, "It's an unjust world, and virtue is triumphant only in theatrical performances"


One of our trios: From Jonathan Miller's non-Japanese 1987 English National Opera staging of The Mikado, Richard Van Allan (Pooh-Bah), Eric Idle (Ko-Ko), and Mark Richardson (Pish-Tush) sing the "I am so proud" trio.

KO-KO: A terrible thing has just happened. It seems you're the son of the Mikado.
NANKI-POO: Yes, but that happened some time ago.
KO-KO: Is this a time for airy persiflage? Your father is here, and with Katisha!

-- The Mikado, Act II

by Ken

To appreciate the significance of that tag "and with Katisha," perhaps we should make the acquaintance of this formidable lady -- the Mikado's "daughter-in-law elect," as she puts it. She already made a dramatic appearance in the Act I finale, but here she is in Act II, accompanying her father-in-law elect on his dramatic arrival in the town of Titipu (as in the title, The Mikado; or, The Town of Titipu).

The Mikado: Act II, No. 5, Entrance of the Mikado and Katisha

LIBRETTO, pp. 26-27
(The "libretto" links are to an old printed libretto scanned online, to let you savor all of Gilbert's wonderful words.)

Both the tune and the words of the Mikado's entrance music are said to be taken from the war song of the imperial Japanese army.

Donald Adams (bs), the Mikado; Felicity Palmer (ms), Katisha; Welsh National Opera Chorus and Orchestra, Sir Charles Mackerras, cond. Telarc, recorded Sept. 2-4, 1991

It was probably wrong of me to start this post with that bit of spoken dialogue. That, after all, is Gilbert the wordsmith without Sullivan the music man, and if there's one thing I've learned in my decades of ever-increasingly delighted and awed intimacy with the collaborative efforts of Gilbert and Sullivan, their contributions are almost impossible to separate. Most anytime I find myself thinking I've isolated some particular strength (or weakness) of some aspect of one of their operettas as particular to one or the other, a bit of reflection reminds me that the contribution couldn't have happened without the collaborator's collaboration. It's an amazing thing, this collaboration between two men so utterly different. In the end the difference may be what accounts for it -- they completed each other artistically in a way that lifted their collaborative efforts into a realm that neither reached on his own.

That said, The Mikado is surely Gilbert's most effortlessly brilliant libretto, or at any rate seemingly effortless. (Seeming effortlessness in artistic endeavor rarely comes easily.) The spoken dialogue is almost limitlessly quotable. Case in point: I had a college roommate who knew not another word of Gilbert's, nor any note of Sullivan's, but who knew the phrase Pooh-Bah, Titipu's insufferably haughty Lord High Everything Else, comes up with to describe the wildly self-promoting embellishments he includes in his account of the fictitious execution of Nanki-Poo: "merely corroborative detail, intended to give artistic verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative." It is for sure an extraordinary description.

Since we've had Gilbert-without-Sullivan, maybe we should hear some Sullivan-without-Gilbert. Reversing our procedure from Friday night's and last night's previews, let's start at -- or I guess I should say go back to -- the beginning, with the Overture to The Mikado. The opening of which should now sound familiar.

The Mikado: Overture

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

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


It was the kind of day when there aren't many places pleasanter to be than on the ferry, making that passage across Upper New York Harbor (free!) about as revivifying as you could imagine. (It's as close to an excursion I take a few times a year, to the island and usually right back, just as a sanity restorer. It's as I come to an ocean voyage, and is actually interesting in all kinds of weather, but on a day like that, it's an almost out-of-body experience.)

The young woman, rivetingly lovely and vivacious and curious, was apparently traveling with a group that included friends her own age, on vacation from somewhere, without an apparent care in the world, simply devouring all the sensory stimuli bombarding her. A rather surly, singularly uncharmed and uncharming boyfriend (I assumed) made occasional appearances, but he didn't seem to figure in the high she was experiencing, which was shared primarily with her girlfriends -- a little band of intimates among whom one was clearly more equal than the others.

As to that shared age, it was impossible to tell. Although they were almost certainly in between, they could have been anywhere from 12 to 22. At times they were giddy children, while at other times they had the confidence and power of young women in full bloom -- and they could shift back and forth in a flash, without warning. When some question about the geography of the Upper Harbor arose, I pitched in.

Suddenly all I could think of was Gilbert and Sullivan's "three little maids from school":
YUM-YUM: Everything is a source of fun.
PITTI-SING: Nobody's safe, for we care for none!
PEEP-BO: Life is a joke that's just begun!
THE THREE: Three little maids from school.

I confess that the "Three little maids" trio isn't normally one of my favorite G&S numbers. It's almost invariably performed with an unbearable attitude of cloying archness, make-believe vixenly girlishness, to make sure -- as is the general rule in g&S performances -- that we the audience know that these are the yuks, folks. However, suddenly confronted with the genuine article, these maids "filled to the brim with girlish glee," I was stunned at how exactly G&S had captured these young ladies, teetering between juvenile delight and wondering ("how we wonder!") "what on earth the world can be."

Maybe we should back up and hear the three little maids entering in the company of their liberated school friends:
Comes a train of little ladies
From scholastic trammels free.
Each a little bit afraid is.
Wondering what the world can be!

Is it but a world of trouble --
Sadness set to song?
Is its beauty but a bubble
Bound to break ere long?

Are its palaces and pleasures
Fantasies that fade?
And the glory of its treasures
Shadow of a shade?

Schoolgirls we, eighteen and under,
From scholastic trammels free,
And we wonder -- how we wonder --
What on earth the world can be?

Glyndebourne Festival Chorus, Pro Arte Orchestra, Sir Malcolm Sargent, cond. EMI, recorded May-June, August 1956

Now the stage is set for the three little maids themselves.

No. 7, Trio, "Three little maids from school are we"
(Pooh-Bah, Ko-Ko, Pish-Tush)

LIBRETTO, pp. 10-11

Valerie Masterson (s), Yum-Yum; Peggy Ann Jones (ms), Pitti-Sing; Pauline Wales (s), Peep-Bo; Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Royston Nash, cond. Decca, recorded Jan. 10-15, 1973

Elsie Morison (s), Yum-Yum; Marjorie Thomas (ms), Pitti-Sing; Jeanette Sinclair (s), Peep-Bo; Pro Arte Orchestra, Sir Malcolm Sargent, cond. EMI, recorded May-August 1956


Joan Sutherland (s), Yum-Yum; Ella Fitzgerald, Pitti-Sing; Dinah Shore, Peep-Bo

Now I think our "bonus" performance is quite delightful, so much so that the omission of most of the second stanza is all the more regrettable. And I also very much like the performance from the 1973 D'Oyly Carte Opera Company recording conducted by the company's able then-music director, Royston Nash.

The D'Oyly Carte company was named for Richard D'Oyly Carte, the impresario who brought Gilbert and Sullivan together and then formed and ran the company that was devoted to performing their works, which survived under his son Rupert and his granddaughter until financial woes forced its closing in 1982. A New D'Oyly Carte Opera Company was started in 1989 but lasted only until 2003.) The Royal Philharmonic, and other orchestras (we heard the Covent Garden orchestra last night in Ruddigore), was used only for recordings, in place of the company's own more or less ad hoc ensemble.

As I say, I quite like the 1973 D'Oyly Carte "Three little maids." (The Yum-Yum, Valerie Masterson, then the company's principal soprano, went on to a legitimate operatic career. By and large the curse of G&S singers is that if they were really up to the demands of the music, they would be singing something else, something that offered greater prestige and a lot more money. So usually the best we can hope for is a good singer with some noticeable but not too painful technical flaw that keeps him/her from a more distinguished livelihood.) But there are traces in it of "playing funny," and for me, for the most part, the funnier you try to play G&S, the cheaper and less funny it becomes, and the more you miss what I consider the substantial human depth as well as humor of these great operettas.

So there's no question that I would gravitate to the Sargent-conducted 1956 EMI recording, which launched a series of G&S recordings conducted by Sir Malcolm (whom we've heard conducting Handel's Messiah among other things), who actually was music director of the D'Oyly Carte company in the late '20s and early '30s, and conducted a number of the recordings in the first electrically recorded series. Wikipedia says Sargent was criticized then for fast tempos, which is ironic because in the EMI stereo series he's often criticized for slow tempos. Actually, the tempos aren't so much "slow" as unhurried, and Sargent is the G&S conductor I've heard most alive to the deeper resonances of the music. In fact, though, you can hear a lot of his "discoveries" in the music in those 78 recordings.


In our previews, I made a point of Sullivan's high comfort level with the trio form. It's not that his writing for one or two singers, or more than three, was in any way substandard. It's just that his way of hearing the universe seemed to lend itself in particular to the trio form. If there are two sides to every story, to many stories there are three sides, and one thing Gilbert must have learned early on about his partner was that he was in his element writing trios -- or what I'm calling "expanded trios," where three characters are pitted against one or two others, as in the case of the quartet we're about to hear and the Act II quintet we'll hear later.

No. 8, Quartet, "So please you, sir, we much regret"
(Yum-Yum, Pitti-Sing, Peep-Bo, Pooh-Bah)

No sooner have our three little maids arrived, filled to the brim with girlish glee, than they run smack into the gleeless personage of Pooh-Bah, the Lord High Everything Else, whose life is devoted to "mortifying" his overbearingly haughty family pride, and who consequently took on all the municipal jobs -- and their grubby cash payments -- when all the incumbents resigned in a huff following the elevation of the tailor Ko-Ko to the exalted position of Lord High Executioner.

LIBRETTO, pp. 12-13

Valerie Masterson (s), Yum-Yum; Peggy Ann Jones (ms), Pitti-Sing; Pauline Wales (s), Peep-Bo; Kenneth Sandford (bs-b), Pooh-Bah; D'Oyly Carte Opera Chorus, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Royston Nash, cond. Decca, recorded Jan. 10-15, 1973

Elsie Morison (s), Yum-Yum; Marjorie Thomas (ms), Pitti-Sing; Jeanette Sinclair (s), Peep-Bo; Ian Wallace (bs-b), Pooh-Bah; Glyndebourne Festival Chorus, Pro Arte Orchestra, Sir Malcolm Sargent, cond. EMI, recorded May-August 1956

No. 10, Trio, "I am so proud"
(Pooh-Bah, Ko-Ko, Pish-Tush)

We have two plot lines in The Mikado headed for a comically deadly intersection. One concerns the budding romance between our Yum-Yum and the "wandering minstrel" Nanki-Poo, who makes what isn't likely to be an exalted living traveling as a "second trombone." There are complications, though. First, Yum-Yum is betrothed to none other than Ko-Ko. Second, well, we've already let Nanki-Poo's real identity out of the bag in the bit of dialogue quoted at the top of the post. The reason he fled his father's court is that he was betrothed to the frightful harridan Katisha.

The other plot line concerns the fate of the town of Titipu, which no less than the Mikado himself has discovered has been sorely delinquent in the matter of executions. The emperor has sent word of his displeasure at the fact nobody at all has been executed during Ko-Ko's tenure as Lord High Executioner, which doesn't suit his majesty's virtuous plan "whereby young men might best be steadied" -- to stamp out public immorality by making flirting a capital crime. Absent an execution within a month, the town faces the ignominy of being reduced to the rank of a village.

So there must be an execution, and logic says that the victim should be the next man facing a death sentence, who happens to be Ko-Ko himself. It's how he got the job. As the noble lord Pish-Tush has explained:
And so we straight let out on bail
A convict from the county jail,
Whose head was next
On some pretext
Condemnèd to be mown off,
And made him Headsman, for we said,
"Who's next to be decapitèd
Cannot cut off another's head
Until he's cut his own off.

Ko-Ko argues that a man can't cut his own head off, to which Pooh-Bah rejoins, "A man might try." Ko-Ko has the inspiration to appoint a Lord High Substitute, and the logical plan would be to add the post to Pooh-Bah's extensive portfolio. Pooh-Bah, however, declines: "I should like it above all things. Such an appointment would realize my fondest dreams. But no, at any sacrifice, I must set bounds to my limitless ambition."

The ensuing trio involves a favorite trick of Sullivan's, which we'll talk about in a moment. First let's hear it, in a recording that contains a pretty good performance, but that I've picked because of its stark but (here) effective stereo spread, with Ko-Ko smack in the middle, Pooh-Bah all the way on the left, and Pish-Tush all the way on the right.


John Gower (bs-b), Pooh-Bah; David Croft (b), Ko-Ko; (b), Ian Humphries (b), Pish-Tush; Westminster Symphony Orchestra, Alexander Faris, cond. World Record Club/EMI, recorded in Hamburg, 1961

The Decca engineers in the following recording also used stereo to good advantage, though our principals are arrayed in the opposite direction: l-r, Pish-Tush, Ko-Ko, Pooh-Bah. Our Ko-Ko, John Reed, was the D'Oyly Carte company's principal comedy baritone for the last 23 or so years of its existence, and later performed wherever G& was being done and they could afford to pay him at least a little something, notably including the New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players. I'm not a wild Reed fan -- it's too much the obvious comedy style that seems to me to cheapen the operettas. Still, he was there when I started getting to know the operas, and for decades thereafter. It's hard to deny him the status of "legend."

Kenneth Sandford (bs-b), Pooh-Bah; John Reed (b), Ko-Ko; Michael Rayner (b), Pish-Tush; Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Royston Nash, cond. Decca, recorded Jan. 10-15, 1973

Now the trick I mentioned. You'll notice that in their solos Ko-Ko, Pooh-Bah, and Pish-Tush sing what sound like totally independent songs, which are then combined in a striking display of pyrotechnical capability. Sullivan was especially fond of doing this with male and female choruses, whose separate songs were then combined into a spectacular mixed chorus, as he did, for example in Pirates with the cowering police ("When the foeman bears his steel, we uncomfortable feel") setting off for combat with the dreaded Pirates of Penzance, and the local maidens sending them off to their glorious deaths ("Go ye heroes, go to glory").


No. 4, "Here's a how-de-do"
(Yum-Yum, Ko-Ko, Nanki-Poo)

The execution quandary was solved when Nanki-Poo happened by, prepared to hang himself over the hopelessness of his love for Yum-Yum. Ko-Ko persuaded him instead "to be beheaded handsomely at the hands of the Public Executioner" --in the month's time he has left for an execution.
You'll have a month to live, and you'll live like a fighting cock at my expense. When the day comes there'll be a grand public ceremonial -- you'll be the central figure -- no one will attempt to deprive you of that distinction. There'll be a procession, bands, dead march, tolling, all the girls in tears, Yum-Yum distracted -- then, when it's all over, general rejoicings, and a display of fireworks in the evening. You won't see them, but they'll be there all the same.
But the only incentive Ko-Ko could offer Nanki-Poo to wait that month was to allow him to marry Yum-Yum and enjoy the month's bliss before his necessary execution.

As if Yum-Yum and Nanki-Poo's wedding preparations weren't blighted enough by the bridegroom's soon-to-follow demise, Ko-Ko brings worse news: the discovery that the wife of a man executed for flirting has to be buried alive. It's just never come up before because, of course, married men never flirt. This trio, in which the principals process this "how-de-do" (Yum-Yum), "pretty mess" (Nanki-Poo), or "state of things" (Ko-Ko) is one of those numbers that was clearly written for encores. You'll hear of Mikado performances in which it had to be repeated on up to 7, 9, even 11 times.


Elizabeth Harwood (s), Yum-Yum; Edward Darling (t), Nanki-Poo; (b), Ko-Ko; Westminster Symphony Orchestra, Alexander Faris, cond. World Record Club/EMI, recorded in Hamburg, 1961

Marion Studholme (s), Yum-Yum; John Wakefield (t), Nanki-Poo; Clive Revill (b), Ko-Ko; Sadler's Wells Opera Orchestra, Alexander Faris, cond. EMI, recorded May-June 1962

No. 7, Trio, "The criminal cried"
(Ko-Ko, Pitti-Sing, Pooh-Bah)

The artful and desperate Ko-Ko found a way around the bride-must-die conundrum. Nanki-Poo offered himself for immediate execution, but Ko-Ko wasn't prepared to do it. "My good sir, I don't go about prepared to execute gentlemen at a moment's notice. Why, I never even killed a blue-bottle." "Still," Pooh-Bah notes, "as Lord High Executioner --" Ko-Ko explains:
My good sir, as Lord High Executioner, I've got to behead him in a month. I'm not ready yet. I don't know how it's done. I'm going to take lessons. Imean to begin with a guinea pig, and work my way through the animal kingdom up to a second trombone. Why, you don't suppose that, as a humane man, I'd have accepted the post of Lord High Executioner if I hadn't thought the duties were purely nominal! I can't kill you -- I can't kill anything! {Weeps.]

Under pressure of the Mikado's imminent arrival, presumably to check up on the execution of his order that there be an execution, Ko-Ko comes up with an alternate plan. "Why should I kill you, when making an affidavit that you've been executed will do just as well?" He's even willing to give up his beloved Yum-Yum, whom he is prepared to send off with Nanki-Poo, to disappear permanently, while the affidavit of his death is witnessed by all the many personages of state embodied in the person of Pooh-Bah. Ko-Ko assures him that the "insult" will be paid in "a ready money transaction."

The Mikado and his daughter-in-law elect make the dramatic entrance we've already heard, and Ko-Ko seizes the first opportunity to present his majesty with the famous affidavit. But the emperor wants to hear about it, and Ko-Ko, Pitti-Sing, and Pooh-Bah improvise the details.

LIBRETTO, pp. 32-33

Clive Revill (b), Ko-Ko; Patricia Kern (ms), Pitti-Sing; Denis Dowling (bs-b), Pooh-Bah; Sadler's Wells Opera Chorus and Orchestra, Alexander Faris, cond. EMI, recorded May-June 1962

John Reed (b), Ko-Ko; Peggy Ann Jones (ms), Pitti-Sing; Kenneth Sandford (bs-b), Pooh-Bah; D'Oyly Carte Opera Chorus, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Royston Nash, cond. Decca, recorded Jan. 10-15, 1973

No. 8, "See how the fates their gifts allot"
(Mikado, Katisha, Pitti Sing, Ko Ko, Pooh Bah)

It turns out, however, that Ko-Ko has gotten the two plot lines mixed. The Mikado is delighted to hear about the execution but has come about the other matter, the disappearance of his son, who has been traced to Titipu, where he was disguised as . . . and Katisha, reading the affidavit discovers that the execution victim was none other than Nanki-Poo. The two plots have converged in a way that's most regrettable for Ko-Ko, Pitti-Sing, and Pooh-Bah. The Mikado stresses that he's not personally put out, not angry in the least, but there is the small matter of the statutory punishment for "encompassing the death of the heir apparent."
Something lingering, with boiling oil in it, I fancy. Something of that sort. I think boiling oil occurs in it, but I'm not sure. I know it's something humorous, but lingering, with either boiling oil or melted lead.

(Actually, we've already heard this bit of fulmination. I quoted it in a post called What in the name of all that's decent can we do about/with/to Holy Joe?.)


Donald Adams (bs), the Mikado; Felicity Palmer (ms), Katisha; Anne Howells (ms), Pitti-Sing; Richard Suart (b), Ko-Ko; Richard Van Allan (bs), Pooh-Bah; Welsh National Opera Orchestra, Sir Charles Mackerras, cond. Telarc recortded Sept. 2-4, 1991

John Ayldon (bs), the Mikado; Lyndsie Holland (c), Katisha; Peggy Ann Jones (ms), Pitti-Sing; John Reed (b), Ko-Ko; Kenneth Sandford (bs-b), Pooh-Bah; D'Oyly Carte Opera Chorus, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Royston Nash, cond. Decca, recorded Jan. 10-15, 1973

Well, that's as far as trios will take us. From hear the action depends on duets: one between Ko-Ko and Nanki-Poo, on the subject of the latter's return to life, and one between Ko-Ko and Katisha, the only way Ko-Ko can make that return happen.

Now, an issue I've tiptoed around in choosing recordings for this post (and even for Friday night's Pirates mini-post):

were, no question about it, the first two stereo recordings made by the D'Oyly Carte company, in 1957: a Pirates of Penzance and Mikado with essentially the same people: Peter Pratt, by a country mile the best of the G&S comedy baritones, as the Major-General and Ko-Ko; Ann Drummond-Grant, challenged in the contralto roles only by the D'Oyly Carte's '20s-'30s Bertha Lewis, as Ruth and Katisha; the foremost G&S bass, Donald Adams, in two of his most famous roles, the Pirate King and the Mikado (though in fairness he rerecorded both roles); the best of the recoded bass-baritones, Kenneth Sandford, as the Sergeant of Police and Pooh-Bah; and that rarity, a fully adequate soprano and tenor, Jean Hindmarsh and Thomas Round; and above all, Isidore Godfrey conducting at his inspired best, drawing singing and playing that sings and soars and glows.

Naturally these recordings have been deemed too good for mere commerce. Decca has apparently decided that it is prepared to continue selling only one D'Oyly Carte version of each G&S opera, and these aren't it. However, an outfit called Sounds on CD, the brainchild of a devotee named Chris Webster, has licensed many of the recordings that Decca doesn't plan to reissue, and sells them through J. C. Lockwood 78s2CD. The CD transfers are said to be done with great care, from original or close-to-original materials. And I don't know whether it's a temporary or permanent price cut, but two-CD sets that have been listed at $33.99 (I've even seen them listed at $37.99) are now being offered for $24.99, a difference I found significant enough to finally order the Pirates and Mikado and a couple of other goodies. (Shipping rates are quite reasonable. For three or more items it's a flat fee of $4.95.) 78s2CD in fact offers pretty much all of the D'Oyly Carte G&S recordings (except the stereo series actually issued on by Decca), going back to the earliest acoustical versions, as well as much other G&S material.

I'll let you know more about them when I get my treasures.


I'm especially sorry not to be able to offer you Ann Drummond-Grant's Katisha, although I think we've heard some fine singing by Monica Sinclair and Felicity Palmer. Katisha if for me almost an emblem of the human depth of G&S. By all appearances, she should be just a figure of ridicule, a gargoyle. And yet her creators have genuinely humanized her. Again, my first impulse is to credit Sullivan's music, but again, Gilbert provided him with the words. There's an extra dimension, though. In the Act I finale, when Katish tries to "tear the mask off [Nanki-Poo's] disguising," and Yum-Yum thrwarts her by drowning out her shocking announcement of his true identity with loud choral singing, Sullivan manages somehow to introduce a note of hollowness in the ensuing choral celebration of the thwarting of Katisha, as if to suggest that there's a price to pay if you try to secure your happiness at the price of another's pain, even if that other is as monstrous as Katisha.

I thought we would hear just one more demonstration of the astonishing musical beauty Sullivan was able to create. (Oops, there I go again. It was Gilbert, after all, who provided him with the situations and the words.) Here is Yum-Yum's aria at the top of Act II.

Act II, No. 2, Song, "The sun whose rays"

LIBRETTO, pp. 23-24

Valerie Masterson (s), Yum-Yum; Royal Opera Orchestra, Royston Nash, cond. Decca, recorded Jan. 10-15, 1973

Elsie Morison (s), Yum-Yum; Pro Arte Orchestra, Sir Malcolm Sargent, cond. EMI, recorded May-August 1956

And having heard "The sun whose rays," why don't we close out by hearing the Overture one last time?

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


In the matter of G&S recordings, there's a stupdenous resource: Marc Shepherd's Gilbert and Sullivan Discography. I suggest taking the critical judgments with a shaker of salt, but my goodness, there's a staggering amount of information gathered here, and the organization makes it remarkably easy to get at. I'm happy to acknowledge that I've cribbed all sorts of discographic data from the site, which has benefited from years of contributions and vetting from dangerously impassioned Savoyards all over the world.

For more general information about the G&S operas, including links to librettos and scores, there's The Gilbert and Sullivan Archive, curated by Paul Howarth. Again, I've made abundant use of this remarkable resource, which by the way links directly to the above discography. Talk about labors of love!


Friday night we heard the "Paradox" trio and Overture from The Pirates of Penzance.

Last night we heard the "It really doesn't matter" patter trio (plus Dame Hannah's song explaining the witch's curse on the Bad Baronets of Ruddigore) and Overture from Ruddigore.


The last time I checked, the audio files were still in place and functional. To reprise:

* Friday: Quiz-Contest: Belated happy 200th, Frederic! (Now name our Chopinistas)

Some introductory notes on the Op. 28 set of preludes, and performances by pianists A-D.

* Saturday: Preview: We hear three more pianists (plus a video bonus!) play those first two Chopin preludes

Along with a few more notes on the two preludes, we hear pianists X-Z.

* Sunday: Listening to those first two Chopin preludes

In addition to rehearing all seven pianists' performances of the two preludes, now properly identified and arranged in chronological order, we focus on some simple listening points in the two pieces.


The new, improved list you've been hearing so much about is here.

Labels: , ,


At 7:23 AM, Anonymous Balakirev said...

I *know* you're trying to be provocative, Ken, with that "best G&S performances" claim. So I'll take the bait, and ask: have you ever listened to the 1920s and 1930s G&S recordings? Sargent's 1930s series has a lot more energy than his 1950s ones, and the 1920s saw a number of extraordinary soloists in the D'Oyly Carte who certainly don't sound as though they could only get work there. I should probably grab a few cuts and send them along, but my wife and I are heading out, now. Maybe later!

At 9:29 AM, Anonymous Bil said...

Wowee, so much to learn here. I thought Tommy was the only real musical...heading for the Chopin later...

Thanks Keni!

At 11:06 AM, Blogger Mark Barton said...

In case anyone is interested, here's some info on the tune that Sullivan used for the Mikado's entrance (actually he adapted it quite heavily, putting it into a major key from what is more of a Dorian mode):

The words used in the Mikado correspond to the first two lines:

"My Prince, what is it that is dancing
back and forth in front of your horse?"

plus the refrain.

At 12:54 PM, Blogger KenInNY said...

Thanks, Maaku, I've never taken the trouble to look into that!

And B, do you seriously believe I haven't heard the early electrical D'Oyly Carte recordings? Especially since I specifically referred to Sargent's early recordings?

As I tried to make clear, in my view, energy ungrounded by human needs is just what G&S doesn't need. But as I mentioned, even in those early recordings Sargent was hearing things most conductors don't. Not enough, though, to make those performances consistently interesting, and the singing is almost uniformly mediocre or worse. The only singer of any distinction is Bertha Lewis in the contralto roles, and if you listen closely, most of her performances are disappointing too -- really not in Ann Drummond-Grant's class either vocally or dramatically.

If you want to hear the GOOD kind of energy, there are no better performances to turn to than the Godfrey-conducted 1957 MIKADO and PIRATES. That, to me, is what these pieces are all about.

Was I really that unclear as to why I respond so positively to the rich humanity of the Sargent-EMI recordings? I'm not interested in stock attitudes and arch fake-funnybusiness. Which again is why for me Peter Pratt walks all over most of the recorded competition in the comedy-baritone roles. He doesn't miss any of the legitimate humor, and makes his dramatic points VOCALLY -- you know, like, singing.


At 10:24 PM, Anonymous Balakirev said...

No, you weren't unclear, Ken. I just don't come to your conclusions, based on hearing the same material. And I honestly think that Sargent's later EMI G&S recordings are sadly lacking in energy, rather than the older ones providing it without reason. But each to their own. Have you heard Rounsville, Stanley Holloway, and Helen Traubel in the Groucho Marx abbreviated Mikado?

At 8:54 AM, Blogger KenInNY said...

I don't want to write off the late '20s and early '30s recordings entirely. I do return to them occasionally. What gives me most pleasure is, as I noted, the flashes in Sargent's conducting, which have nothing to do with "energy" and everything to do with sensitivity to unmistakable undercurrents in the music, which despite their "unmistakability" almost every other conductor of the music has managed to miss, that hint at its expressive breadth -- qualities, in other words, that prefigure Sargent's indispensable EMI stereo recordings. No, those performances aren't perfect, from either the vocal (George Baker? Richard Lewis?) or conductorial standpoints; it was, after all, the 1957 Godfrey-D'Oyly Carte Mikado and Pirates as the best G&S recordings ever made, which by the way wasn't intended to be provocative but seemed (and seems) to me so obvious as to be beyond discussion, for the fairly specific qualities I described.

Still, anyone who really wants to begin to discover the emotional range of these operas has nowhere to turn but the Sargent stereo recordings. (I would include, with reservations, the Decca stereo D'Oyly Carte Princess Ida and Yeomen he conducted.) When I chose only one recording of the "Comes a train of little ladies" chorus, it wasn't an accident that I went with the Sargent-EMI. Beyond that, while sure, I've heard every scrap of G&S I've tracked down (though Marc Shepherd's amazing discography reveals that there's still a lot I haven't tracked down, but it's certainly none of the commercial stuff; I'd sure love to hear those 1966 and 1989 BBC G&S series, though I actually do have the '66 Utopia and Grand Duke), what I was focusing on -- in a piece that even so became way longer than I'd have wished, was performances that illustrate the qualities of The Mikado that really matter to me. So, since I didn't have Peter Pratt's Ko-Ko available to me, I hoped some readers might be struck by how interesting Clive Revill's is. (In the readily available but stupendously problematic early '80s G&S video series Revill gives a startling demonstration, in the title role of The Sorcerer, of what an actual performance of a G&S role would look and sound like.)

Again with regard to the early electrical G&S recordings, I really don't see any way around the prevailing dreadfulness of the singing. The sopranos are different modes of embarrassments; while the widely admired tenor, Derek Oldham, indeed had a voice of sorts, but it's used in exactly the effete, self-parodying way that I absolutely loathe, and that to me is the death of any kind of meaningful engagement with these operas; and the baritones and basses, some of whom have ardent fan bases, to me are a collection of uniformly colorless voices that suggest all those dreadful dry-voiced German baritones and basses to whom we've so often been subjected in unendurable Wagner performances. So while again I do still dip into those performances, why anyone would subject himself to them on an extensive basis baffles me. It seems clearly not in pursuit of any of the priorities I was trying to stake out.



Post a Comment

<< Home