Gilbert and Sullivan. I realize they are not for everyone, that there are those who find the situations in the operas too absurd, the parody too arch. This column is not for them.
Rather it is for those who like myself find that, short of bereavement, there is no funk so blue, no darkness so devoid of dawn, they cannot lift one out of. That the absurdity is in fact the point, its universality transcending the specific social, political and, yes, artistic targets of the Victorian era.(A few years back a local writer slammed a revival of "Patience" on the grounds it had no relevancy - this about a work in which the sham poet Bunthorne confides to his audience: "And everyone will say/As you walk your mystic way/`If this young man expresses himself in terms too deep for me/Why, what a very singularly deep young man this deep young man must be!' ")
If you fall into that camp, you will be happy to hear the bounty of CD reissues I called attention to a couple of years ago continues unabated, offering the confirmed Savoyard an unprecedented selection of great performances of nearly all the G&S operas.
Primarily that has been accomplished through Arabesque's CD-ing of its historic transfers from the classic D'Oyly Carte recordings of the early electrical era, three more of which now join the lists. They are, in chronological order, the 1927 "Gondoliers," the 1929 "Iolanthe" and the 1930 "Patience," all of which communicate a vibrancy and stylistic authority too often absent in the decades since.
For me the plum here is "The Gondoliers," a set that despite its antique sound - amazingly clarified on this issue - has acquired almost legendary status through the years. That is largely due to the participation of Henry Lytton (an incomparabaly fey Duke of Plaza Toro), Bertha Lewis and Leo Sheffield. But as the gondoliers themselves one admires the contributions of Derek Oldham - still the manliest of all G&S tenors - and that most seasoned of non-D'Oyly Carte recording artists, George Baker, whose career ultimately would span the much later EMI stereo remakes.
Like many of the 78-rpm sets - but not this "Gondoliers" - those were conducted by Malcolm Sargent, whose sensitivity to the music's lyrical-cum-operatic elements occasionally paid unexpected dividends. For example, the EMI "Trial by Jury" (CDS7-47779-8, with "H.M.S. Pinafore") still strikes me as the finest representation that delightful work has had on records, thanks in part to Baker's marvelously fruity Judge and Sargent's deft underlining of the musical parody.
Similarly both artists surpass themselves on the stereo "Patience," Baker in particular savoring Bunthorne's words as he was not able to on the more speedily conducted 78-rpm recording. Add to that an outstanding digital transfer, at once bright and full, and I would rank this EMI set (CDS7-47783-8, coupled with Sullivan's "Irish" Symphony) even above London's CD remastering of its early stereo "Patience," unless one demands the spoken dialogue.
Happily that is also present on London's 1960 "Iolanthe" and '59 "Pinafore," recently issued on two mid-price CDs together with the same label's Sargent-conducted "Yeomen of the Guard." Zestfully directed by Isidore Godfrey, the first two are far superior to the same company's later-stereo-era remakes. Nor have they ever sounded better than they do here, the "Pinafore" in particular standing as one of the most spectacular G&S recordings ever made.
Ditto this "Yeomen," a bit shy on wit but in tune with the piece's more operatic overtones. On each of these releases, moreover, each act is complete on a single CD - something not always true of earlier London issues - which still leaves room on Disc 2 of "Yeomen" for Godfrey's sprightly "Trial by Jury," almost as sonically stunning as his "Pinafore."
That stands in contrast to the EMI "Pinafore," an equally delightful performance - especially in the ensembles - but unnecessarily split between CDs in the middle of Act 2. That is not true of the aforementioned "Patience," however, or the EMI "Ruddigore," another successful Baker/Sargent remake, although here I still prefer the 1931 Arabesque set (not yet on CD).
At the same time avid "Ruddigorians" may want to give MCA's 1987 New Sadlers Wells set a tumble, incorporating as it does for the first time on records the original score - hence the later-amended title, "Ruddygore" - in a no-less-spirited performance, much finer than the same label's "Mikado" highlights. (I have not heard their "Pinafore.")
So what does it all boil down to? If one does not object to their age, Arabesque offers clean-sounding transfers, generally favoring clarity over body, of some of the most invigorating G&S recordings ever made. Indeed, for my taste the 1927 "Gondoliers" and 1936 "Mikado" have never been equalled, much less surpassed.
Nonetheless both EMI and London offer some real gems, the latter earning extra points for which of its several performances of the operas it has chosen to reissue and, on these latest issues, the care taken with the transfers. Thus the Sargent "Trial by Jury" and "Patience" and Godfrey "Pinafore," "Pirates" and "Iolanthe" can be commended to anyone. (The plain fact is all the "Iolanthes" are good.)
Leaving CD buyers waiting for not only the '31 "Ruddigore" but Arabesque's "Yoemen" and anybody's "Princess Ida." And if once again I plump for the early electric set, with Lewis and Lytton, perhaps I am guilty in succombing to another of Bunthorne's maxims: "Be eloquent in praise of the very dull old days which have long since passed away/And convince 'em, if you can, that the reign of good Queen Anne was Culture's palmiest day. . . ." Except that in terms of G&S performance they weren't so dull, and thanks to modern technology they haven't quite passed away.
This time I don't think even Gilbert would have minded.