Gilbert & Sullivan for Orchestra

Eric Johnson, conductor


The Best Loved Melodies of Gilbert and Sullivan

Malcolm Hughes, conductor

Universal UMD 80395
Universal UMD 80395

In this recording, the operas get a treatment somewhere between Disney and 101 Strings. Tempi are strange, and the orchestrations sometimes completely at odds with the mood of the underlying material, as if the arranger simply wanted to get all his instruments in wherever he could.

Having said all that, the recording is pleasant enough, if not something that you'll want to return to again and again. However, most of my correspondents were decidedly negative about it. J. Donald Smith provided the following review:

This collection of orchestral adaptations of excerpts from the operas is somewhat different from most others. Rather than being medleys of many of the songs from an opera, each opera is represented by ony a few (usually 3–5), with each one being given the full orchestral treatment. In my opinion, the treatment does not work very well — schmaltzy sound, over-exuberant percussion and weak transitions between the numbers. I was glad when it was over (and I can normally find something that would make a performance worthwhile.)

The original version, WST-14133, has Mikado, Gondoliers, Yeomen, on one side, Pinafore, Patience, and Pirates on the other. The Westminster Gold reissue lacks Pinafore, which was by far the worst of a bad set of interpretations.

The identity of the conductor is something of a mystery, which Dan Kravetz attempted to unravel:

The performance is credited to "Eric Johnson and His Orchestra." It is believed that this was actually Kurt List (1913–1970) and whatever third- or fourth- string Viennese orchestra could be rented along with the hall where the recordings were made. List was the longtime producer for Westminster Records and also conducted a few classical works for the label. Most of the "Eric Johnson" repertoire is soupy, pop-oriented arrangements of classical themes, but his recordings of Eric Coates' works are authentic and competitive.

In the 1970's the Westminster classical catalogue was reissued on LP (along with some titles from Command Records) on the "Westminster Gold" label, with the goofiest cover art ever produced in the classical field. These are on view at There are several truly great recordings in the series, by such conductors as Artur Rodzinski, Herrmann Scherchen, Sir Adrian Boult, William Steinberg and Pierre Dervaux. The best of these found their way onto CD on MCA Classics, and later with much improved sound quality on Deutsche Grammophon.

Chris Webster bought the CD coupling several of these selections with music of Eric Coates, and along the way he discovered that this set was in fact identical to the The Best Loved Melodies of Gilbert & Sullivan, conducted by a possibly imaginary conductor named Malcolm Hughes:

This CD is an Eric Coates /Arthur Sullivan compilation. I shan't go into the Coates details, except to say that the Coates section is 45 minutes, whereas the Sullivan section is only 30 minutes. The Sullivan items are "Orchestral Music" from Gondoliers, Pirates, and Mikado. However, despite a brief (and unusual) synopsis of each, I can tell you that the second item is not Pirates at all, but is in fact Pinafore.

A note in the acknowledgements section says that the recordings were previously released on Westminster. When I got home, I checked the web site and discovered the source recording. It is not rated particularly highly, but I don't have this Westminster record, so good or bad I was pleased to at least have three items from it. End of story — or so I thought, until I played the CD.

I immediately recognised the tracks. I had these recordings, but where? I searched through my LPs for some time looking for an Eric Johnson/Westminster record that I might have forgotten about to no avail. This was perplexing. There was no doubt in my mind that I knew these recordings well. Then, I thought could it be that I have this record disguised under a different label or even conductor. The answer to this is yes. After trying a few instrumental records, I found that the SAGA LP The Best Loved Melodies of G & S by the London Light Opera Orchestra, conducted by Malcolm Hughes, was in fact the LP that I knew these recordings to be from. This record must be the same as the Westminster record. But why the disguise? Is it a "stolen", illegally issued record from SAGA? Well, I think I have the answer.

Recently I borrowed a copy of a book called Pearls Before by Charles Haynes, which commented on some of the "goings on" with the cheap labels of the '60s, which I expect is an explanation of our two records. It would seem that quite often the cheaper labels who could not afford to make their own orchestral recordings, would licence or buy recordings from overseas, usually with unknown orchestras and conductors. But, occasionally, engineers of major recording companies would keep the out-takes from major orchestras, create their own master from these, and sell them to small independent labels, who would then invent their own names for the conductor and orchestra. Of course, Haynes does not tell this as a confession, he only hints that this was rumoured to have happened, but I think we can read between the lines here. However, in the next paragraph he does admit to the invention of names for some of the Delta label issues, and confesses that quite often they used to "monkey around", hence the soprano Herta Wobbel, conductors Havagesse and Homer Lott. It seems that they were eventually caught out about the bogus names. Haynes writes:

The Trades Descriptions Act threatened the continuing existence of these fine artists: "End of the Road for Musician Havagesse" proclaimed the Daily Telegraph's headline. (I wrote a reasoned letter back pointing out that our activities had helped to bring record prices down to the benefit of the consumer, but it wasn't published)

I think this is also very likely the story behind all the other cheap 60s LP that come from the National Musicale recordings or the Green German Mikado.

Something else that is of interest about the Johnson LP/CD and the SAGA issue is the timings. I don't know the length of the Johnson tracks, I assume they are the same as the SAGA tracks because Don mentions that only 3-5 songs are featured in each medley, but the CD track timings are 9' 40'' for Gondoliers, 8' 39'' for Pinafore (Pirates !!) and 13' 01'' for Mikado — much, much longer than the SAGA tracks.

After Chris pointed this out, I went home and checked my own records. The SAGA LP states, "First Published in 1965". Either this is a deliberate lie, or the publishers did not know they had been provided recycled material.

The dust jacket of the 1974 re-issue has nothing but a title and a large photograph of a gaudy pair of lorgnettes. When I opened the shrink wrap, the disc inside was a recording of the first and second symphonies of Carl Maria von Weber. I've sinced obtained one of the earlier issues (right record this time), which has a crayon drawing of a ship on the front. The date is uncertain, but the dust jacket has text explaining what stereo is all about, which suggests the late '50s.

Issue History
195-? Westminster Mono LP XWN-18952  
Stereo LP WST-14133
1965 SAGA Mono LP XID 5080 Issued as The Best Loved Melodies of Gilbert & Sullivan, the London Light Opera Orchestra conducted by one Malcolm Hughes
1960s? Westminster Stereo LP SS-701 Described as "Satellite Series"
1974 Westminster Gold Stereo LP WGS-8293  
199-? Universal/Millennium Classics CD UMD 80395 Music of Eric Coates and Arthur Sullivan. See the discussion above.