The Recordings of Princess Ida

Comparative Review by Michael Walters

The 1924 HMV Recording

Turning now to the complete recordings, the acoustic (1924) is the faintest in sound, but the most satisfactory as far as the performances are concerned. Winifred Lawson is almost the only Princess Ida I have been able to listen to on record and enjoy, and Leo Sheffield the only Hildebrand.

The overture is not very distinguished, but this is really inevitable on acoustic records. The orchestra is grumpy, with none of the delicacy the music requires; nevertheless, it is a reasonably adequate performance of a perfunctory piece of music. The opening chorus is sung rather more legato and less staccato than is now customary, and I think is the better for it.

It is Winifred Lawson who "makes" the set, and she sings "O goddess wise" with a clear and sustained voice with no trace of tremolo. "I built upon a rock" is taken with dignity and expression, but she is, perhaps, at her best in the Act 2 finale (the section beginning "Be reassured") where she soars effortlessly over the chorus. The pristine whiteness of her tone is perfect for this role.

As Hilarion, Derek Oldham sings beautifully, with poise, control, and his remarkable romantic charisma. He is best in "Today we meet"; his other song, "Whom thou hast chained," is cut to one verse, and is sung with charm, but with a certain amount of strain on top notes. The finale ("With joy abiding") is very fine, both soloists sounding genuinely in love.

Leo Darnton's Cyril is a joy, and it makes one regret that this is his only recording. His Kissing Song is certainly my favourite performance of this number — sung with an infectious musical comedy charm unparalled by any other Gilbert and Sullivan record. But the voice also has delicacy, and in "They intend to send a wire to the moon" he handles his verse with more elegance than even Derek Oldham. Darnton's lovely held note with the crescendo and diminuendo at the end of his verse of "O dainty triolet" is quite ravishing — all other Cyrils sound characterless by comparison. Sydney Granville as Florian does not come near the other two and is no more than adequate in this particular role: in his solo in the opening chorus, he sounds positively elderly.

Henry Lytton recorded King Gama twice, but the earlier recording is definitely the better of the two. It is quite simply the best Gama I have heard — there is a quaint humour in the voice, and no attempt at forced effects as in the case of some other performers of the role. The essence of Lytton's interpretation of his first song is the apparent (but tongue-in-cheek) non-comprehension of why he is disliked. The song in the last act is excellently delivered also, with perfect diction and just a suggestion of a tear in the voice. The first song is taken very slowly and the second very fast.

In "P'rhaps if you address the lady" there is a gentle teasing from Lytton, reciprocated by Leo Sheffield; the insults are indeed done "most politely". Hildebrand is one of Sheffield's best roles, with an astringent precision, and he is allowed to take both "Now hearken to my strict command", and "Some years ago" very fast indeed. The latter item sounds marvellously bad-tempered, and he gets extra emphasis on the line "the long and the short of it" by pausing on the word "short". A hallmark of the performances of both Lytton and Sheffield is that they were able to get added histrionic emphasis by getting marginally and momentarily out of time. It is a trick which would be frowned on today, but in the hands of an expert can be most effective, as these performers demonstrate.

Darrell Fancourt also recorded his role (Arac) twice, and he is magnificent on this recording. He sings "This helmet I suppose" with warmth and authority, though showing some strain on top notes. "We may remark" is a bit dead-pan, but relieved by Sheffield's irritable snort after "pooh pooh it". The querulous "yes, yes, yes"s are also very effective.

Bertha Lewis is the most satisfactory Blanche, and this recording contains the only published record of "Come Mighty Must", though off-the-air performances on tape (including one by Monica Sinclair) exist. Lewis's is a fine fruity rendering, and one should note her accented pronunciation of deceivèd, which suits the music better than unaccented, as is frequently used. Her voice blends wonderfully with that of Eileen Sharp in "Now wouldn't you like to rule the roast". The latter takes Sacharissa's single line as well as Melissa, and her voice is clearly produced. In her most important solo, "Thus our courage all untarnished", it is charged with girlish simplicity; she takes the lower note on "exclaim".

Lady Psyche is Kathleen Anderson's only recording, and she sings "A lady fair" expressively and has a distinctive voice, slightly nasal. The phrasing is tasteful and calculated to give due weight to the words. However, in the opening number of the act, "Towards the Empyrean heights," although she sings clearly and dramatically, she emerges as no more than a competent soprano.

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