Friday, August 23, 2013

Sunday Classics postscript: Poor Arthur Sullivan never knew how well he had succeeded as a "serious" composer


GILBERT and SULLIVAN: The Mikado: Act II: Song, Yum-Yum, "The sun whose rays are all ablaze"

In the film Topsy-Turvy (of which I might say I'm not a big fan), Shirley Henderson fake-rehearses, then fake-sings, Yum-Yum's Act II spoken dialogue and song, "The sun whose rays."
YUM-YUM [looking at herself in her mirror]: Yes, I am indeed beautiful! Sometimes I sit and wonder, in my artless Japanese way, why it is that I am so much more attractive than anybody else in the whole world. Can this be vanity? No. Nature is lovel, and rejoices in her loveliness. I am a child of Nature, and take after my mother.
The sun whose rays
are all ablaze
with ever-living glory
does not deny
his majestry;
he scorns to tell a story.
He don't exclaim,
"I blush for shame,
so kindly be indulgent."
But fierce and bold,
in fiery gold,
he glories all effulgent!
    I mean to rule the earth,
    as he the sky.
    We really know our worth,
    the sun and I.
    I mean to rule the earth,
    as he the sky.
    We really know our worth,
    the sun and I.

Observe his flame,
that placid dame,
the moon's Celestial Highness:
There's not a trace
upon her face
of diffidence or shyness.
She borrows light
that, through the night,
mankind may all acclaim her!
And, truth to tell,
she lights up well,
so I, for one, don't blame her!
    Ah, pray make no mistake,
    we are not shy;
    we're very wide awake,
    the moon and I.
    Ah, pray make no mistake,
    we are not shy;
    we're very wide awake,
    the moon and I.

by Ken

I don't want to get into an extended discussion of the above "performance." I grant that it does try to do something with the song (after doing whatever it did with the spoken dialogue, which seems just a way around dealing with its over-the-top giddy content), more in fact than most performances of it I've seen and heard, but when the singer can't sing the song, it doesn't count for much.

It's possible to react as one commenter does:
The sheer fragility in Ms Henderson's performance is heartbreaking and just downright beautiful. Yes, there are more exacting performances of this piece, but none touch the heart´╗┐ the way this one does. Probably one of the most moving scenes in any film.
Or it's possible to suggest that among those "more exacting" performances would be an entire category of ones by singers who can actually sing the piece.

I'm sorry I can't embed the young Valerie Masterson's performance from the 1966 D'Oyly Carte company Mikado film. It isn't acted at all, and as a commenter comments, "She looks like a sexy´╗┐ extra from the original Star Trek series . . . what a hairdo!" But at least you can close your eyes and hear the genius of Arthur Sullivan, lifting a potential cartoon character into the realm of the sublime. (In a moment we're going to hear Masterson sing this extraordinary song even better, in the later D'Oyly Carte audio recording.)

There's a lesson here, which I want to draw in returning to last week's post, "Dance a cachucha! Returning to the Gondoliers Overture." And that lesson is: Contrary to popular impression, the Gilbert and Sullivan operas are hard to perform well -- extremely, and sometimes even excruciatingly hard.

That is, if you actually want to perform them well.


. . . I thought it came out unexpectedly well. Well enough that I went to the trouble Monday night of revamping the post, the most notable change being the incorporation of spoken texts for all the vocal numbers, on the ground that if I really wanted you to listen to those performances comparatively, and I did, this of all times was a time when it might be helpful to have the words available. I even threw in a hint, with my suggestion that having the words at hand might "even raise questions like: For which recordings are the printed texts most and least necessary?"

I try to avoid telling you what to hear, but I can tell you what I hear. And when I had last week's musical examples lined up, even though it looked like just several excerpts from The Gondoliers heard several times over, mostly from the same three performances, the contrasts really popped out at me, and even demonstrated -- for me -- what I had originally hope to argue in more rational fashion: that it's possible to have a performance (the 1991 New D'Oyly Carte one) that's reasonably scrupulous musically but earthbound, as against a performance (the 1960 Godfrey-D'Oyly Carte) that has some real musical and dramatic inspiration, though also some really weak soloists (the Gianetta, Tessa, and Casilda), and then another (the Sargent-EMI) that has certain limitations but nevertheless lifts the piece into another realm of musical expression and human experience.

Possibly it would have helped to include some really terrible performances. I really hate to waste your time and mine with bad performances, but at some point we may have to do it. I thought about doing it again for this little "postscript," but I just couldn't do it.

For tonight I simply want to return to a point I made in last week's preview, "Working back from the Mikado and Yeomen of the Guard Overtures to The Gondoliers." We heard an assortment of performances of the Mikado and Yeomen of the Guard Overtures, including Sir Malcolm's stereo ones (indeed both of his stereo Yeomen Overtures), and I suggested you "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."

Yeomen of the Guard we'll leave for some other time. Tonight I want to go back to performances that in fact we've mostly all heard before. And again, as I said, no bad performances. In fact, these are all what I would consider pretty great performances.

I always get shudders when I say it, but it still seems to me embarrassingly obvious that the 1957 D'Oyly Carte Mikado and the Pirates of Penzance recorded right after it are the greatest Gilbert and Sullivan performances on records. Conductor Isidore Godfrey is in his most inspired form, and neither cast has a weak link and both are strewn with exceptional performances, starting with the finest of recorded G&S comedy baritones and contraltos, Peter Pratt and Ann Drummond-Grant. Imagine my surprise, then, when I reviewed the 1973 D'Oyly Carte recording conducted by Royston Nash and found it a grand and highly successful peformance in its own right, and overall very nearly the equal of its illustrious predecessor.

And still, for me, the Sargent-EMI Mikado stands on a level of its own. (At this point in my spiel, I usually point out that already in the early electrical Gilbert and Sullivan recordings Sargent made during his time as D'Oyly Carte musical director, although we don't hear the later slow tempos, we do hear all kinds of other probings for inner musical life.)

We haven't talked much about the joint and separate biographies of Gilbert and Sullivan, but for those who don't know, Gilbert was a through-and-through man of the theater, making no apologies for his comic genius, while Sullivan was surrounded by snooty British-musical-society types, who produced very little music of genuine consequence but constantly drilled it into Sullivan, especially once he became Sir Arthur, that his collaboration with Gilbert was musical slumming, that it was distracting him from his true task of composing great "serious" British music.

The sad part is that Sullivan believed it. Even without those ignorant whisperers, Sullivan constantly struggled with Gilbert to give him more "human" characters whose situations he could dig into, and Gilbert in varying degrees complied. What, sadly, neither Sullivan nor his ignorant snob friends grasped was that Sullivan was already doing exactly what he said he wanted to do -- in his collaborations with Gilbert. His so-called serious music is pretty much crap. You have only to hear his "serious" opera, Ivanhoe or the dreary cantata The Lost Chord to know that you never want to hear them again.

But the characters and situations Gilbert created for him, which in anyone else's hands would have remained two-dimensional caricatures, in Sullivan's hands became living, breathing fellow humans, striving and struggling and ultimately (usually) celebrating. Let's listen to Yum-Yum.

GILBERT and SULLIVAN: The Mikado: Overture

["The sun whose rays" at 1:09] New Symphony Orchestra of London, Isidore Godfrey, cond.
Decca, recorded October 1957

["The sun whose rays" at 1:21] Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Royston Nash, cond. Decca, recorded Jan. 10-15, 1973

["The sun whose rays" at 1:19] Pro Arte Orchestra, Sir Malcolm Sargent, cond. EMI, recorded May-Aug. 1956

GILBERT and SULLIVAN: The Mikado: Act II, Song, Yum-Yum, "The sun whose rays are all ablaze"

Jean Hindmarsh (s), Yum-Yum; New Symphony Orchestra of London, Isidore Godfrey, cond. Decca, recorded October 1957

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-Aug. 1956


We'll have a special "guest poster": the great pianist Arthur Rubinstein. Or at any rate we'll have a remarkable and clearly heartfelt piece of advice he offered to young pianists in the second volume of his autobiography, My Many Years. And naturally we'll hear some Rubinstein performances that I hope will illustrate his point.


For a "Sunday Classics" fix anytime, visit the stand-alone "Sunday Classics with Ken."

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