The S.A.S.S./Divine Art Cox & Box (1994)

CoxLeon Berger
BoxIan Kennedy
BouncerDonald Francke

Piano: Kenneth Barclay

Album Cover
Divine Art CD2-4104

This recording was made in 1984. The artists had intended that it would be released on the Pearl label, but the master tape languished for a decade until the ever-enterprising Sir Arthur Sullivan Society issued it on cassette in late 1994. The Divine Art label issued it on CD in 1998. Like the C&B Productions recording, this is the complete 1866 version of the opera, not the Savoy Version that D'Oyly Carte twice recorded.

The recording was made "in a Victorian drawing-room with the performers using real doors, windows, curtains, and all the appropriate domestic props—much as it would have been first given at the informal presentation at Burnand's house in 1866 [i.e., the premiere]." The sound is very "live," with audio effects (slamming doors, lighting matches) about as realistic as you'll ever hear on record.

The principals, all polished professionals, are excellent. Ian Kennedy, Box, gives the best performance of the role on record. Leon Berger, Cox, is dramatically strong, but his heavy baritone slightly overpowers an essentially patter role. Donald Francke, Bouncer, sings with operatic beauty, but his cockney accent is a bit overdone.

I agree with Chris Webster (below) that the Cox and the Box are not sufficiently differentiated, and this makes their long dialogue scenes a bit monotonous. They lack the melodramatic swagger of Donald Francke's Bouncer, and as a result, the recording lacks dramatic balance.

These problems are less evident in the musical passages, and it is nice to have the entire score, down to the last Rataplan, on a commercial CD. The accompanist, playing an authentic Victorian piano, brings great virtuosity to the task. However, I feel that a recording with full orchestra is still needed, so the best I can say at the moment is "Modified Rapture!"

The cast aim to present a "first-night" version of the opera. To this end, there is no overture (as this was written later), and the "Bacon Lullaby" is given in the original compound time (rather than the definitive version in common time). However, in the interest of including as much music as possible, the duet "Stay, Bouncer, stay" is included, even though this was not originally part of the opera.

While it is true that the first performance had no formal overture, one is compelled to assume that the accompanist at that performance, the composer himself, must have extemporised some type of musical introduction. So, the recording might as well have included Sullivan's actual overture, to avoid beginning straight away with dialogue, which comes across as distinctly awkward.

Chris Webster contributed the following review:

The three performers are very solid, although I felt that Cox and Box (Leon Berger and Ian Kennedy) were a little too alike in characterisation — possibly owing to this being a straighter reading of the lib than the loveable performances of Styler and Riordan in the classic '61 recording of the Savoy Edition. This is not to the detriment of either of the players on this recording; both read and sing their parts well and with confidence.

Indeed the performances on this recording are infinitely better than their 'oppos' on the lacklustre second DC recording, and the miscast G&S For All recording: Dear Donald Adams, fabulous as he was as Bouncer, is just not quite right on record as Cox, and Tom Round's voice is far too closely recorded to be make pleasant listening IMO. Donald Francke as Bouncer, although lacking Adams's bubble, is otherwise as good as any Bouncer I have heard on record or seen in performance.

It is great to hear all those bars that are usually cut from the songs we are already familiar with, and also interesting to hear the original lullaby, although I prefer the more usual version of this item. As far as I am aware, this is the only commercial 'audio' issue to include the Gambling Duet, and this is delivered as well as the other items on this disc.

I also appreciated the accompaniment of a period piano on this set. The G&S For All recording, which uses a piano, always strikes me as just being a cutback, whereas its use in this original version added to the authenticity of the recording. I really felt I was present at that first performance of 1866.

Leon Berger (Cox), on reading these comments and others posted on Savoynet, filled in the background and defended some of the artistic decisions:

In 1984 the cast were touring a hybrid Cox & Box (adapted by Joseph Horowitz) using the Savoy edition dialogue and key signatures with some of the original musical passages reinstated. All being Sullivan fans, and egged on by Selwyn Tillett (who had access to the, then, hard to come by VSs), we 'got up' the original for fun.

The tenor (Ian Kennedy/Box) and the pianist Ken Barclay had just recorded for Pearl ["Thomas Round Sings For You" and "The Parlour Quartet" respectively] and so got Charles Haynes of Pearl interested. David Mackie of the D'OC kept us on track.

Once in the can we were pipped to the post by the Brent-Walker video (and its LP spin-off) which put much of the previously unreleased material into the public domain and, Pearl felt, pre-emptied the market. Although 'our' recording was complete there was not then the demand for two similar products. Plus we taped on good old reel-to-reel cut'n'splice and Pearl did not, at that stage, have the technology to bring it into the new domain of CD standards. It was only at the suggestion of Stephen Turnbull that the master tapes were retrieved from Pearl's recording engineer's widow that it saw the light of day at all!

So, yes, it is years old. Recorded in 1984, released by the Sir Arthur Sullivan Society in 1994 and now (endorsed by the late Arthur Jacobs, no less) on commercial release in 1998. However, we had a ball doing it and I hope that's what comes across.

A few points:

Overture. Marc Shepherd has commented that it sounds odd to begin straight in with dialogue. Sure, we considered this point at the time. However, Sullivan would have obviously improvised an 'overture' at the piano and we have no way of second-guessing what he might have done. The existing Savoy overture contains the re-written bacon aria and would not be appropriate.

Bacon Lullaby. Never (to my knowledge) orchestrated [i.e., the original version —ed.] so even if we had the budget for a band we would have had to fake it. Also remember, 14 years ago it was considered radical to be authentic in G&S (sorry, B&S) scholarship and the whole idea of recording alternate versions and/or bonus tracks for reprogrammable CDs was unheard of.

Dialogue. We effected a certain similarity in delivery between Cox and Box (they will turn out to be brothers, after all!) hoping that listeners would be able to distinguish in vocal timbre. As to Cox being essentially a patter part, as some people have suggested, well of course 'My Master is Punctual' is, but elsewhere he's socking out top Gs all over the place which most patter men can only squeek. Grossmith (who played Cox) was an exception and had a phenomenal range. Subsequent Cox(e)s like Martyn Green and John Reed, of course, sung it in the lower Savoy keys.

So the recording aims to be a complete, authentic, professional reconstruction. And, hopefully, people coming to Cox & Box for the first time will have a closer approximation to the original rather than the 1921 Savoy Edition that everyone's been fobbed off with on stage and disc.

The was issued on CD in July, 1998, by Divine Art Record Company (CD2-4104), in association with the Sir Arthur Sullivan Society. It is "budget" priced at £8.50.

Issue History
1994 SASS Cassette None
1998 Divine Art CD CD 24104
2009 Diversions CD DDV24104