I really don’t listen much, these days, to show recordings. Especially new recordings of my beloved older shows. Those, in particular, having no surprises to spring as to exciting discoveries, are inevitably unpleasant. Pretentious. Stuffy. And overcast or miscast… I mean, an operatic contralto as Letty Lind in The Geisha? What a w*** …
So, I just don’t listen to them.
For me, there isn’t a wholly satisfying recording, even, of the super-well-known works of the Gilbert and Sullivan repertoire, which has been made in the last hundred years…
This week, however, I got caught by surprise. I was sitting quietly in my seaside bolthole, researching Pauline Markham, burlesque princess, and Charles Lyall of the Carl Rosa, when a CD arrived at my theoretically unknown hideaway address. A double CD even. It sat for a few days, but I had to unwrap it. Because it was Tom Jones. Not the Green Green Grass of Delilah. The real Tom, as in Henry Fielding and Edward German. And one of the very, very first shows I ever saw. Directed by my father circa 1953 in Wellington, NZ.
I still remember that eightish year-old feeling: ‘I knew that he looked, I knew that he looked, I knew that he looked at me’. I was in love.
I’d listened to the existing recordings of the show when writing my Musical Theatre on Record, and thrilled (as one must) to Frederick Harvey’s Tom. Then June Bronhill and Joan Sutherland. How could a new recording equal that?
Well, lay me down with a rolling pin. This one did.
This is, without any question, the best 21st century recording of a classic English musical cum light opera that I have heard. I sat, waiting (as I do) to find something to dislike and … it just didn’t happen. The whole two discs were nigh on perfectly in line with my conceptions as an historian and my very narrow preconceptions as a casting director.
Number one. Orchestra and chorus. How often is THAT number one? Delicious. Full-bodied but light, with a bright-and-sparkling feeling that G&S choruses inevitably fail to find. They gave the tone to the whole affair … ‘Don’t you find the weather charming…’
I knew I’d get snooty about the soloists. I always do. But … here comes Squire Western … woofy bass? No! Deliciously clear baritone! Like, like, like hugely. Then Tom. Rich-voiced Frederick Harvey? A sylphic Hayden Coffin? No! A zingy crystal clear high baritone … Wow! Like, like, like huuuu….gely. Well, Sophia will surely be a graunchy prima donna robusta. Groan. No!!!!!! A splendid voice of just the right weight, and even when the music tempts her to go wooooooo she manages (sometimes just!) to keep it bright, light and sprightly. This is, after all, Sophia Western and not Lady Macbeth! My teensy disappointment came with a mezzo soubrette. ‘I knew that he looked..’. But she certainly added shape to the ensembles and hey, maybe I was, 60 years on, still in love with Dad’s teenage Honour.
All I can say, in summary, is that this grumpy old hidebound critic and ex-caster says yayyy! And whoever cast this recording, and whoever produced it (eight years ago, I gather), are my soulmates. This is how it should be done. This company and these soloists should be immediately signed up by Britain’s Arts Council (if they have one) to record the whole 19th-early 20th century repertoire of English, Irish, Welsh and Scottish theatre music – G&S included. That is, if said Arts Council has any money left from sponsoring trendy American musicals at the National Theatre.
I’m off to bed. Feeling joyous. Thanks, folks, for giving me so much enjoyment …