The Recordings of Princess Ida

Comparative Review by Michael Walters

The 1932 HMV Recording

The electric 78rpm recording on HMV (1932), has better sound than the acoustic version, but apart from one or two interesting and historically important performances from some of the minor characters, has little to commend it.

Malcolm Sargent conducts, taking the opening section of the overture molto vivace, then relapsing into a languid andante. The orchestral forces he was able to command were clearly superior to those of Harry Norris a decade earlier. The opening chorus is taken more staccato than in the acoustic, and sounds less effective.

Henry Lytton's Gama is not a patch on his earlier recording. This was the only role he recorded twice, and it was, incidentally, his last recording. He had deteriorated both musically and dramatically; the paralysis of the lips with which he was afflicted towards the end of his career is beginning to be noticeable on these records. "When'eer I spoke" is languid and sung with little sense of urgency, and he is clearly having trouble in physically singing the music.

King Hildebrand, Richard Watson's only recording from his "early" D'Oyly Carte period, is unworthy of him. Although I am an admirer of his later Decca series of records, this one disappoints me, and his thick "fluffy" voice really has not the timbre for Hildebrand. He seems to find the patter difficult, and nowhere is he any match for Leo Sheffield's acid sarcasm. Although he sings intelligently in places (noticeably in "Some years ago"), in other places ("P'rhaps if you address the lady"), he is unbelievably mechanical.

Muriel Dickson, the Ida, does have a certain amount to commend her. She had a very big voice, much larger than Winifred Lawson's, and she is highly thought of by some American enthusiasts, partly at least because she made it to the Metropolitan Opera House (though I believe only for one or two seasons). While the voice is big, it lacks individuality and has a strong tendency to spread. It is by no means as clear or as well-focused as Lawson's, and the big aria, "O Goddess wise" does not compare with the earlier singer's recording. She is at her best in the quiet passages, as for instance in "The world is but a broken toy" which has a poise and tranquility, but the men's voices do not blend as well as they do in the Lawson rendering. Miss Dickson is beautifully sweet in the last act finale, clearly the aspect of the role that really suited her nature. It is in the dramatic sections that she falls down: "I built upon a rock" is finely sung, but with little real emotion, and the Act 2 finale (beginning "Be reassured") is almost unbelievably "cosy", with no drama or sense of urgency from any of the singers.

As Hilarion, Derek Oldham's performance is mainly interesting for the fact that he was allowed to sing both verses of "Whom thou hast chained"; it is still, however, somewhat abridged. He sings the number with passion and intensity. Elsewhere he has lost some of the charisma, and is not as good as on the earlier recording.

Charles Goulding as Cyril sings for the most part intelligently, and his phrasing is excellent, but he is no match tonally for Leo Darnton. Goulding's tone varies, and is particularly unlovely in "They intend to send a wire to the moon" — which song, nevertheless, emerges very well due to the contributions from the other two. The Kissing Song is dull and taken conventionally; Goulding cuts off the long notes, suggesting he may have suffered from shortness of breath. It may be worth noting that he rarely sang the role; Hilarion was his more usual part. On the other hand, George Baker gives a far better performance as Florian than Sydney Granville, but the role is not sufficiently prominent for his presence to be a real recommendation for the set.

Darrell Fancourt repeats his performance as Arac, and is mostly just as good as before, but no better. "We may remark" is taken quicker, and the preceeding "Some years ago" slower, thus making less contrast between the sections. "We are warriors three" emerges as quaintly humorous due to Sargent's taking the number at a rather pompous majestic and less taut tempo than Norris: Fancourt responds by sounding more like an emperor than a king's son!

It is the sections involving Melissa (Nellie Briercliffe) which are really worth listening to. She is magnificent in the solo "Thus our courage all untarnished", capturing the timidity and the mock defiance excellently. (She sings the lower alternative notes, and the fanfare is missing). In the duet with Blanche she is deliciously mellow, and the two ladies' voices blend beautifully, though elsewhere Dorothy Gill is an acid and strained Blanche.

Alice Moxon is no more than adequate as Psyche; she sings with expression, but I find it hard to find any marks of individuality in her solos in the opening sequence of Act 2. In "A lady fair" she sings with ladylike grace. Phyllis Evens is satisfactory in Sacharissa's single line. (Neither of these last-mentioned were members of the company and seem to have been HMV's "tame" singers).

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