Magazine article Gramophone

Gilbert & Sullivan's HMS Pinafore: Conductor Richard Egarr and Jeremy Nicholas Discuss the Authentic Way to Perform G&S

Magazine article Gramophone

Gilbert & Sullivan's HMS Pinafore: Conductor Richard Egarr and Jeremy Nicholas Discuss the Authentic Way to Perform G&S

Article excerpt

'There is so much we can learn from listening to old piano recordings--Carl Reinecke, Saint-Saens, A Cortot, Rachmaninov. It's something I encourage all my students to do.' This is how Richard Egarr enthusiastically begins our conversation. Hang on! We're supposed to be talking about his new Linn recording of HMS Pinaforel Well, as Egarr makes clear during the interview, old recordings are by no means as irrelevant to the project as you might think.

HMS Pinafore, or The Lass that Loved a Sailor, was Gilbert and Sullivan's fourth collaboration, though neither Thespis, Trial by Jury or The Sorcerer approached the wild success of this, their first international hit. It opened at the Opera Comique theatre just off the Strand on May 25, 1878, and enjoyed an initial run of 571 performances before its numerous subsequent West End revivals. Who has not at some point seen a production of Pinafore or taken part in one? Numbers like 'I'm called Little Buttercup', T am the Captain of the Pinafore', 'When I was a lad I served a term' and 'He is an Englishman!' are part of the fabric.

On the surface it may seem surprising that its latest incarnation on disc should be directed by a man more usually associated with the world of early music or his role as a renowned harpsichordist. Richard Egarr demurs. This most amiable and articulate of conductors has an omnivorous musical diet. 'People who know me know that I have very broad musical tastes. Now I haven't done any G&S since I was at school but when you come down to it, it is fantastic theatre. It is exceptionally well-crafted with a fabulous text, in the same way as Purcell's The Fairy Queen or King Arthur.'

The idea for doing Pinafore came as a result of Egarr having recorded Bach's St John Passion with the Academy of Ancient Music (a recording shortlisted for a Gramophone Award in 2014). Over a meal after the sessions, Egarr, producer Philip Hobbs and AMM's administrator Andrew Moore agreed that the Passion's soloists, who included Elizabeth Watts, James Gilchrist and Christopher Purves, would 'make a perfect G&S cast'. When Moore moved to become Artistic Administrator of the Edinburgh Festival in 2014 and wanted to do G&S with Scottish Opera, he knew who to ask. 'When we started casting,' says Egarr, 'we used a lot of people who had been in the St John Passion and a lot of early-music people who I had enjoyed working with in the past.' I ask if any of them had sung G&S before? Egarr isn't exactly sure. 'I suspect so. Being a very English cast, I suspect most of them had.' Had he conducted any G&S before? 'No. No!'

We have before us the full score in the sumptuous 2003 edition published by Broude Brothers. It comes with a similarly weighty Commentary volume. I suspect that most people would be as astonished as me to discover in the latter's 200 pages the teeming number of textual and musical changes made to the operetta over the years in different editions. (All the spoken dialogue in the new recording, by the way, has been replaced by a narration, Tim Brooke-Taylor reprising his role in a 2005 BBC Prom with Sir Charles Mackerras.)

How did Egarr go about preparing for the recording? 'One of the first things I do is to get hold of all the recordings I can--there are some very early recordings of G&S, two from 1907, for instance. I was very keen to encourage the Scottish Opera Orchestra strings to basically slide around as much as possible and apply the aesthetics of rubato which were prevalent at the end of the 19th century, even in the Overture. Look at the oboe solo at bar 52 [marked Andante] which I wanted to be flexible, rather than rigid as it so often is in modern performances. Incidentally, there is a general performance tradition these days of playing those kind of accompanimental quavers under the oboe quite short and detached--and that's not the way it should be done. It should be more on the string. Even something as mundane as the opening canon shot [bar 4]. …

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