Sunday, February 28, 2010

John Reed and the Sound of G&S

John Reed died two weeks ago at the age of 94. He was the D'Oyly Carte's lead patter performer -- the guy who handled the George Grossmith parts -- for 20 years. Because he was on most of the company's stereo recordings (which were the ones most easily available) he pretty much was Gilbert and Sullivan for me, since I learned most of the patter songs from his recordings.

The exception was the role of Ko-Ko in The Mikado, because I learned that score from the D'Oyly Carte's recording of 1958 -- one of the few recordings made by Reed's predecessor, Peter Pratt. (Pratt did not stay with the company as long as Martyn Green or Reed, but I think there's an argument that he was the best of them, at least as a singer.) Reed recorded Ko-Ko both in audio and video versions, but it's Pratt's voice I hear in my head whenever I think of the score.

We all tend to associate scores with the people who are singing them when we first hear them. But I find it's even more pronounced (for me) with Gilbert and Sullivan, because the recordings were the only chance I usually had to hear them in fully professional productions, with a good orchestra (or, sometimes, even an orchestra). So the inflections of Reed and his D'Oyly Carte colleagues of the era -- from quality opera singers like Valerie Masterson and Gillian Knight to not-so-great singers like Mary Sansom or Christene Palmer -- essentially defined what the scores should sound like.

That said, I sometimes think it's unfortunate that the Grossmith roles are rarely cast as true "singing" roles. It's true that Grossmith himself was not really a singer and Sullivan wrote with that in mind. But when people are trying to cast the G&S operas in a fresh or different way, they rarely consider that it might be genuinely fresh and different to cast these important parts with a solid, true baritone voice, the way Papageno in The Magic Flute (also written for a "performer" rather than a singer) usually is. Instead the casting always trends even more toward acting over singing -- even with the Judge in Trial By Jury, which wasn't written for Grossmith and really needs a good singer.

The Malcolm Sargent recordings on EMI started out trying to do something like that by assigning the patter parts to Geraint Evans, the prominent British opera singer. Evans sounded like he didn't enjoy the parts (he didn't) and he was replaced on later recordings by the veteran (and kind of over-the-hill at that point) patter singer George Baker. But I still think the operatic casting of the Grossmith parts could pay off.

In the meantime, Reed's voice is going through my head even more than it usually does. And here again is the clip of him singing Ko-Ko's "Tit-Willow" song.

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