Gilbert & Sullivan – Mackerras

The Yeomen of the Guard – Overture
Sullivan arr. Mackerras
Pineapple Poll – Suite
Gilbert & Sullivan
HMS Pinafore [or The Lass that Loved a Sailor] – Operetta in two acts

Sir Joseph Porter – Richard Suart
Captain Corcoran – Neal Davies
Ralph Rackstraw – Timothy Robinson
Josephine – Sally Matthews
Little Buttercup – Felicity Palmer
Dick Deadeye – Peter Sidhom
Bill Bobstay – Owen Gilhooly
Bob Becket – Stephen Richardson
Cousin Hebe – Wendy Dawn Thompson

Tim Brooke-Taylor (narrator)

Maida Vale Singers

BBC Concert Orchestra
Sir Charles Mackerras

Reviewed by: Chris Caspell

Reviewed: 16 July, 2005
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Sir Charles Mackerras’s relationship with the operettas of Gilbert & Sullivan has been a long and profitable one. Although he is mainly celebrated for his tireless promotion of Czech music, Mackerras’s allegiance with the creators of the ‘Savoy Operas’ should not be gainsaid. As a child in Australia he sang in all-boy productions of G & S, singing both male and female parts as a boy treble.

Queen Victoria’s quasi-royal command, “You ought to write a grand opera – you would do it so well”, must have seemed prophetic to Arthur Sullivan given it was spoken only a few months before the opening of “The Yeomen of the Guard”. There was an element of “grand opera” in these Mackerras-led performances though without ignoring the often-whimsical nature of Gilbert’s lyrics. Mackerras’s mastery of the style ensures that this music avoids becoming overbearing. His technique, baton-less for the first half, readily lends itself to the overall structure of the music and dwelling less on microcosm. Mackerras’s experience in this music shone through. It was superb!

50-odd years ago, Mackerras’s work at Sadler’s Wells brought him together with South African choreographer John Cranko to produce the ballet Pineapple Poll. Based upon one of Gilbert’s ballads – later used for “HMS Pinafore” – Mackerras uses tunes from G & S operettas; indeed there are too many to keep track of and, here, they bounced by very quickly in the hands of the arranger; the BBC Concert Orchestra was in fine form.

Mackerras is not known for ponderous tempos; his 1994 recording of “HMS Pinafore” fits snugly onto one CD (minus dialogue). The second half of this Prom was taken up by the first performance there of “HMS Pinafore”, over 90 minutes’ worth, and recorded for future television broadcast. Two of the soloists are on Mackerras’s Telarc CD, Richard Suart and the inimitable Felicity Palmer. Her incredulity at Ralph Rackstraw’s unfair plight, as caused by her own hand, is of similar distinction to Edith Evans’s “A handbag!”.

Narrator Tim Brooke-Taylor presided as Cyril Fletcher used to in “That’s Life” – seated in a large leather armchair. A new narration, written by Kit Hesketh-Harvey (of “Kit & the Widow”) replaced Gilbert’s original dialogue. Although it was topical, with references to current cabinet ministers, a semi-staged production would have been better. The orchestra, slimmed down from the forces required for Pineapple Poll, left plenty of room for some simple props, and it was a shame that the soloists kept a tight hold of their music. Despite this reliance upon scores, there was some exemplary singing – Timothy Robinson’s enchanting ballad “A maiden fair to see” springs to mind.

Then there were the comic turns of Richard Suart – the “Ruler of the Queen’s Navee” (sic) – with facial expressions ideal for a Benny Hill sketch. Sir Joseph Porter was modelled upon the career of W.H. Smith (of high-street-shop fame) who rose from humble beginnings to become the First Lord of the Admiralty – without ever going to sea! We were again provided with modern-day equivalents to set this narration firmly in 2005.

The rising of a Union Jack at the operetta’s end (“For he is an Englishman”) did appear jingoistic even if inaccurate. But in a city mourning its dead from terrorism, a bit of flag-waving goes a long way.

Between ‘Yeomen’ and ‘Poll’, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, Master of the Queen’s Music, announced Sir Charles Mackerras as the first recipient of the new Queen’s Medal for Music Award. The Award’s purpose is to raise the general profile of music within the UK, and to reward individuals, of any nationality, who have had a major influence on the nation’s musical life. Sir Charles’s brief speech of acceptance cued a chorus of “For he’s a jolly good fellow” from the Prommers.

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