The Columbia Abridged Electrical Sets

Between November 1930 and June 1931, Columbia recorded four abridged sets, all of which were released as albums of six 10" discs. All of the D'Oyly Carte sets up to that time had been released on 12" discs, but these required more expensive equipment to play. By offering their sets in the smaller format, Columbia was evidently catering to a substantial audience that could not play the larger records.

Note: I cannot recall from which source I derived the above information. Chris Webster wrote to say that he thought it unlikely that there was a significant population that could play 10" discs, but not 12" discs. Bruce Miller also opined that he had never heard of such a thing, but Stephen Turnbull said that it sounded plausible to him. For now, I let the comment stand while it remains in controversy. —ed.

The artists used—essentially the same for each set—were Appleton Moore, William Heseltine, George Portland, Dan Jones, Nellie Walker, Alice Lillie, Joan Cross and Sophie Rowlands. The conductor was Joseph Batten. Nellie Walker was also featured on many of the D'Oyly Carte sets, as was George Portland under his real name, George Baker. That Baker felt compelled to use a pseudonym here may suggest that he didn't want his participation on the rival sets to be public knowledge. On a Merrie England set recorded for Columbia at about the same time — where there was no competition — he used his own name. Ironically, Columbia and HMV would eventually become constituent companies of EMI, which found itself its own competitor.

The four Columbia sets were The Mikado (1930), The Gondoliers (1931), The Yeomen of the Guard (1931) and Iolanthe (1931). They were successful enough to remain in the catalogue until after World War II, but they were never re-issued on LP. There is now a CD re-issue by Chris Webster's Sounds on CD.

Stephen Turnbull provided an overview of the sets:

The operas were heavily abridged to fit onto six double-sided 10-inch Columbia dark blue label 78s. The discs were available either singly or in a special presentation box (a hinged arrangement with three discs on each sleeve, quite unlike the albums HMV used); if you bought them in the box you also got a booklet containing cast, a plot synopsis and the lyrics of the songs recorded. Severe cutting was inevitable given that twelve 10-inch sides play for only about 36 minutes: to represent as many songs as possible, Columbia opted for omitting verses — hence only one verse of "Is life a boon?" etc.

Casting is interesting with decent, rather than great, singers of the period — Dan Jones (tenor), Alice Lilley (sop.), Randell Jackson (bar.), Sophie Rowlands (sop), Nellie Walker, Appleton Moore and George Portland — who is actually George Baker singing under yet another of his pseudonyms. Look out for Joan Cross in small roles in Iolanthe and Gondoliers.

The conductor was Joseph Batten, who describes in his autobiography Joe Batten's Book how the sets were made — naturally without the co-operation of D'Oyly Carte. An interesting curiosity is that some of the sides of the Mikado set have piano accompaniment only.

These sets stayed in the catalogue a long time. Consequently they are among the commonest of G&S 78s: even today I regularly see them in junk/antique shops.

Chris Webster wrote:

I am finding these to be quite quirky recordings to listen to, and yet I'm sure there is a comment in the Joe Batten book that he thinks these are superior to other G&S recordings. I have to disagree with this.

I haven't yet made any comparisons with the HMV sets but I'm sure that Baker, without Gordon's eagle-eye, is performing with less strictness to the printed score than in the "official" recordings.

If this is the case then it is very interesting. Lytton took the score and made it his own with his histrionics and parlando, but if Baker is also showing signs of this style of performance (albeit more subtle ones) then surely it proves that Baker was clearly instructed not to do this by Gordon for the HMV sets. This less strict style is also how he did things in the Glyndebourne series and on other later G&S recordings he made (for broadcasts). I have previously put this down to age, but now I'm not so sure. Of course it may just be my ears playing tricks on me at the moment, but I'm sure he sounds free-er for Columbia than when under Gordon.

This would also pose another question. Was Gordon happy with Lytton's style of performance? The question could have been asked before now, but in view of the possibility I am exploring that Baker by nature would have been less strict, it does appear to lend weight to his HMV recordings being done in a way that Gordon actually insisted upon. Green certainly wasn't allowed to perform in a style similar to Lytton's, and yet there was no direct tradition known to Green for going so closely by the book, and so he must surely have been instructed to take a stricter line than Lytton had done. Green might also have been aware of Ivan Menzies' style of performance which I believe was even further from the score than Lytton.

From even earlier recordings we have evidence that some performers took their own performance liberties (in the Passmore school), and others were stricter (in the Workman school). Perhaps Gordon's liking for the more accurate style is a reflection of Gilbert's own preference. Even if this is the case I am pretty sure that the Passmore style is more along the lines that Sullivan wanted — otherwise I cannot believe that he would have been happy with "non-singers" (for want of a better expression) being cast in these roles.

The D'Oyly Carte Abridged Electrical Sets

The success of Columbia's abridged sets may well have been the impetus for D'Oyly Carte to likewise record several such sets — each consisting of six 10" discs, just like the Columbia versions. D'Oyly Carte recorded ten complete operas on 12" discs between 1927 and 1932, so keeping up with Columbia would appear to have been the primary reason behind these sets.

The first three abridged recordings, all dating from 1931, were: Yeomen, Pirates and Gondoliers. The first recording session for D'Oyly Carte's abridged Yeomen came on the same day, and included two of the same singers, as the last session for the Colubmia Yeomen.

The last abridged set, and probably the most interesting today, was The Sorcerer (1933). The motivation for this set was probably not any competition from Columbia, but rather, to put out highlights from the only opera in the repertory that D'Oyly Carte had never recorded up to that time. After the early thirties, performances of The Sorcerer became very infrequent, and it was out of the repertory entirely when both of D'Oyly Carte's complete recordings (1953 and 1966) were made. This is the only recording featuring singers who had learned their roles on the stage.

Sounds on CD VGS 247
Sounds on CD VGS 247 [Cover by Matt Bland]

The Victor Abridged Sets

In 1931, RCA Victor introduced a kind of long-playing record prefiguring the LP format Columbia would introduce after the war. RCA's long-playing records never caught on, but they did issue three G&S sets in this format: the 1930 D'Oyly Carte Pinafore, and two "Vocal Gems" sets—Mikado and Pirates — recorded by the Civic Light Opera of New York City, a professional company active in New York and on tour at the time.

Vocal Gems recordings typically were just one or two 78rpm sides, and in general these are not in the scope of this Discography. However, Victor's two sets were clearly more substantial than the typical Vocal Gems recording, in that they included well over half of the opera. See the discussion of the Civic Mikado for more information on the history of these recordings.

In about 1942, Victor issued an abridged recording on four discs of H.M.S. Pinafore, with an ensemble now billed the Victor Light Opera Company. The complete D'Oyly Carte recording also remained in their catalogue, so this was probably a less expensive alternative designed to appeal to wartime austerity.

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