Recordings of The Yeomen of the Guard (and also Trial by Jury)

Comparative Review by James McCarthy

Note: James McCarthy published these reviews in the now defunct Australian magazine Soundscapes. Many thanks to James for the opportunity to host them here.

A selection of new recordings and some famous re-issues of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas are our concern in this article. I emphasise this is a selection and I have not delved into any of the pre-war recordings for comparisons, even though I know many were very fine indeed.

The musical direction of Gilbert and Sullivan performances is rarely discussed, attention being paid primarily to the singers and whether the style is in the infamous G&S tradition or not. I well remember attending my first performances of these pieces in the fifties, what was remarkable about them all were the unremarkable sounds coming of the pit, the accompaniments were simply never taken seriously. In my time conducting these works on the pro-am circuit around Sydney, I came to realise that nobody much cared about what was happening in the orchestra (provided it didn't cost too much) and many critics didn't seem to care (or notice) either.

So it came as a great joy to me in the sixties, when Sir Malcolm Sargent and Alexander Faris brought their refined skills to the conducting of these minor masterpieces, with the Glyndebourne and Sadlers Wells Operas, respectively. Now we have a new wave of recordings, with two other distinguished men, Mackerras and Marriner at the helm and it gives us an opportunity to continue this study. Admirers of conductor Mackerras have long hoped he would record all the operettas, as his reputation as an inspired Savoyard lies well beyond his fine work in Pineapple Poll, the Sullivan based ballet score. Now it seems Telarc is giving him the opportunity.

When Sir Malcolm Sargent recorded his versions of the operas in the sixties, they were distinguished by a line up of fine singers and a more serious approach to the orchestral accompaniments. They were generally disdained by fans of traditional performances and welcomed by those who had wearied of the standard D'Oyly Carte approach. Outstanding among those recordings, and at the extremes of the G&S canon, were his never bettered Yeomen of the Guard from 1958 (EMI CDS 747781 8) and a ripping Trial by Jury in 1961. Regrettably, Sargent's deliberately slow tempi marred many of the other editions, the most disappointing being Princess Ida, recorded, interestingly enough, not with his usual Glyndebourne forces but with D'Oyly Carte in 1965. This was particularly unfortunate, as this superb score rarely gets into the recording studio.

The Yeomen of the Guard holds a special place in the G&S canon. It certainly has the most serious theme of all the Savoy Operas and can sometimes fall foul of this quality, especially if the melodrama is not reined in and Jack Point fails to use some restraint in the final moments of the opera. Once past the melodramatic imprint, I believe you have the finest score Sullivan ever wrote, and in so saying, I 'dips me lid' both to Iolanthe and Princess Ida, as a mark of passionate respect.

Philips has given us the work's first complete recording for a very long time, including enough of the dialogue to keep the plot line going. Nonetheless, I have mixed feelings about this, especially as speech covers many of the beginnings and endings of songs. This will limit the playing of exerpts on radio for a start. However, the dialogue editing is well done and I am grateful that the text has been largely — if you will excuse the expression — "de-quothed." Gilbert's setting of his text in quasi Elizabethan argot can be very tiresome to modern ears. Fortunately it is well performed in this recording, far better than the mannered recordings D'Oyly Carte made with dialogue in the sixties.

Philips issue the text in English and the notes in four languages, which, for such an Anglophile entertainment, has its own delights. How many of us would recognise this work as Die Leibgardisten, Les hallebardiers de la garde or La guardia reale, I wonder. The image of an Italian G&S buff, a glass of Frascati clutched firmly in one hand, reading about Fra le piú amate del Teatro Britannico, whilst "A private buffoon" prattles away happily in the background, beggars description.

The credits list a seemingly impressive array of talent, including the ubiquitous Academy of St. Martin in Fields, who appear to be able to tackle anything from Vivaldi concerti to The Ring these days. Ditto, Sir Neville Marriner. Regrettably, I am one of those tedious people who believe that Marriner's best work was back in the good old days, when the Academy under his direction re-energised a vast amount of the chamber orchestra repertoire. I was and remain a devoted fan of that body of work, but since he stepped onto the podium and took up the big stuff, a patina of flatness has descended over his music making. Truly a pity, and the more so as Polygram have chosen him to be one of their star turns and has promoted him accordingly, and with great success. Ergo, an already crowded catalogue is stuffed with more bland performances of the standard repertoire than ever before.

So it is with this recording. The performance is uneven, the recording is flat, and the women (Sylvia McNair as Elsie and Anne Collins as Dame Carruthers) are dull. Only the men partially redeem the enterprise. Thomas Allen's Jack Point is excellent. Point is a mean spirited man whose tragedy is that he is not a very good jester and loses the girl as a result of his diffidence. Allen gets this across very well, a nice change from all those superannuated Point's who make little dramatic sense. Stafford Dean's Sergeant Meryll is also splendid, his dialogue a special treat. Bryn Terfel's Shadbolt is not weighty enough for me, but he does a good job. My first impression of tenor Kurt Streit, was that he cut a dashing figure as Colonel Faifax and sang well; then I switched over to Richard Lewis on the old EMI recording. Oh dear, all lyric tenors could do well to study this sensitive and musical reading, Lewis makes such wonderful sense of the words and the drama. "Free from his fetters grim" is a lovely example of miniaturist singing. Similarly, his work in the Finale of Act One. From "Forbear my friends," Lewis is in complete control as the disguised Leonard Meryll, a wry humour coming through the elegant performance. In this charming and beautifully written scene he is joined by Marjorie Thomas as Phoebe (a mile ahead of Jean Rigby on Philips) and by Owen Brannigan's superlative Shadbolt. When all this is backed up stylishly by Sargent, it's game, set and match to the EMI team.

Nonetheless, there are good things in the Marriner recording, and he brings many felicitous touches to his reading, but I fear the techs in the studio have been up to their usual tricks of re-balancing (we know better than the conductor). In the dreariest recording of the overture I've ever heard, the orchestral balance is very odd indeed, especially in the woodwind. Marriner's tempi vary uncomfortably as well. He manages (with splendid help from the Phoebe of Jean Rigby) to turn in the most colourless "Were I thy bride" on record. On the other hand, he takes the dubious "Rapture, rapture!" at the gallop which works very well; one should never try to make anything out of that number. He also coaxes a well-shaped reading from the three leading ladies in their act two trio "Tis said that joy." Curiously, the performance comes to life in the oddest places, such as the two wonderful trio's "Alas, I waver to and fro" and "How say you maiden." Here Marriner seems to have been inspired by the delicious accompaniments and wonderful ensemble writing. If he'd measured the rest of the score in similar fashion I might have had different story to write.

But, I hear you cry, surely we need a new, modern recording of this piece. Perhaps, but compare this recording with the Sargent from 1958. Apart from a small amount of tape hiss, the old recording wins hands down, and the performances are runaway winners. The listed soloists reads like a who's who of British singing in the late fifties, even though Elsie Morison and Geraint Evans sound a tad mature for their roles of Elsie and Jack Point. The Pro Arte Orchestra make a wonderful blaze of sound that the Academy completely fails to achieve in the later recording. Also noticeable is the better sense of ensemble, which was a notable part of British orchestral playing back then and is less in evidence these days.

In the washup and performances aside, it is hard to credit that EMI's 35 year old recording actually sounds decidedly better than the contemporary one. What has happened to our recording industry? Doesn't anybody have decent ears any more, or do they just rely on all the whiz-bangery?

The Mackerras Recording

With the addition of Trial By Jury, this new recording of Yeomen must be considered very good value indeed. Sir Charles told me last year that Telarc were considering issuing the opera on two CD's (the first of the Telarc G&S recordings to be so) and including the dialogue. I am delighted this has not happened as I have never been hugely enthusiastic about recording all operas with spoken dialogue. Most record buyers just want the music, in the case of Yeomen particularly so. Like The Gondoliers, it is not one of the wittiest Gilbertian texts, and its Elizabethan speech sounds very arch indeed. Of all the top conductors, Mackerras understands Sullivan's style most completely and if nothing else, these performances establish an invaluable benchmark. The fine brass chording, the tight, bouncy string accompaniments, the affectionate and stylish woodwind phrasing, and above all his great care with note values, are the mark of a man who not only fully understands the importance of Sullivan's orchestrations but who can also deliver them brilliantly in performance. Sir Charles's direction of the orchestra distinguishes the recording, which technically is hard edged and lacking warmth. I was looking forward to this new recording of Yeomen, particularly in light of the unsatisfactory Marriner recording on Philips with its lifeless sound, and whilst miles ahead of the Marriner, it has its weaknesses. For example, Donald Maxwell's Shadbolt is rather characterless and Neill Archer's Fairfax is uneven and not particularly attractive. The Welsh chorus, such a joy in the earlier recordings is a bit subdued, which seems to be the fault of the balance, and some of the ensembles sound a tad under rehearsed as well. Of note is the opening of a traditional cut in the act one finale, where the yeomen are quizzing Fairfax about his many adventures. In performance these hold up the action but it is good to have them, if only for the record.

The performance of Trial By Jury is more successful, although the two operas are in complete contrast with each other, musically and dramatically. Trial is an absolutely ripping little work, which never stops for a minute, sounding as fresh in 1996 as it must have done when first heard over 120 years ago. The casting works better as well. Rebecca Evans, Elsie, is one of the strengths of the Yeomen recording and her Plaintiff in Trial is excellent. Richard Suart (an undistinguished Jack Point) is a satisfactory Judge, despite too much "gargling" — an old, patter-man problem. Donald Adams is a dull Meryll but an entirely appropriate Usher. I must refer to the wonderful Sargent recording of Trial from 1961, although Sargent is often too slow in performance and a couple of his soloists (Lewis and Morison) don't sound as fresh-faced as they should. On the other hand the old EMI recording is sumptuous and beautifully balanced; if only the Telarc engineers had listened to that recording, they may have equalled or bettered it. However, Mackerras' brisk tempi are excellent and he doesn't let up, apart from the Counsel's song, which is a point of necessary repose in the work. Mackerras, the early opera specialist, comes into his own in Sullivan's superb Bellini send-up, "A Nice Dilemma," treating it as he would the scene from La Sonnambula which it parodies. In the washup though, both performances are excellent.

[Note: It is in fact Eric Garrett singing the Usher on the Mackerras recording, although the notes credit Donald Adams.]