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Interview, Richard Egarr on HMS Pinafore

Richard Egarr on HMS PinaforeIt's not every musician who launches new recordings of the Bach French Suites and a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta in the same month, but that's exactly what Richard Egarr's doing this summer: ahead of his solo Bach disc on Harmonia Mundi (released 10th June), he brings us a live recording of HMS Pinafore on Linn Records, captured live at last year's Edinburgh Festival and boasting some of the UK's finest opera-singers in the principal roles.

I spoke to Richard last week to find more about applying historically-informed performance techniques to this music, the challenges of casting this work with full-blown operatic voices, and his background in this repertoire in general…

This isn’t necessarily the repertoire we associate with you (or indeed with some of the singers on this recording) – what’s your history with Gilbert & Sullivan, and how did this project come about?

People do like to pigeon-hole me: I’ve always done a broader repertoire than people perhaps know! But the whole point of historically-informed performance is that it doesn’t really restrict you to a 200-year period: it’s simply an approach, a way of thinking, and I’ve always performed later music in my capacity as a conductor and director, particularly in my work with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. So yes, I’m sure some people will be slightly surprised by this – but they shouldn’t be, necessarily!

Like most prep-school boys I was involved in school productions of The Mikado and The Pirates of Penzance – all done by boys, of course (I was a Japanese lady in The Mikado!). But I hadn’t done any since then, though I’ve always liked the music: I think it’s a fantastic collaboration, indeed one of the greatest theatre collaborations, like Mozart and da Ponte. The chemistry between Sullivan and Gilbert was extraordinary, and the music by Sullivan is incredibly well done: it stands on its own. Certainly his serious compositions were extremely well-crafted music, but things particularly took flight when he was associated with Gilbert.

So I didn't have any G&S experience after school until this project came up, but it was something that I was very happy to do. The idea came to us one night at a post-recording session dinner and lots of wine, after we’d recorded the St John Passion: I looked round the table and said ‘Wouldn’t this be a great cast for a Gilbert & Sullivan production?!’ It was something that I’d mentioned before to various people, and the rest is history: two years later we were doing it at the Edinburgh Festival!

The influence of the old D’Oyly Carte traditions, especially from the recordings dating from the middle of the twentieth century, has shaped a lot of the expectations that audiences bring to this music: was that something that you consciously wanted to move away from?

It’s not a sort of negative inspiration. When I approach anything like this, I want to find out how it was performed at the time: there are lots of much older recordings of this stuff (there are two from 1907), but to get this performance style right, it’s not necessarily a question of throwing out what was done in the 50s and 60s. There’s a whole weight of performance tradition (which is of course a very loaded word – Toscanini said that tradition is only the last bad performance) here, because G&S is such a massive thing: certainly people expect certain things in performance now, but my goal was to take what I know and what I’d investigated and apply that to what we did at that performance in Edinburgh.

Did you work from a new edition of the score for the recording?

There are actually two new editions which have come out in the last ten years which are very authoritative – the volume containing the commentary for one of them is almost as thick as the score itself, there’s so much stuff to plough through! But basically I wanted to get back to being as faithful to the text as possible. Like with any piece, even a Bach piece, there are things that were done wrong that didn’t then change. But the idea that there is a definitive version of any score is actually not really true: I just wanted to get as close to a good text as possible and the fact these latest editions are very, very good and so well documented is extremely helpful.

Stylistically, how does this historically-informed approach manifest itself on the recording? I notice you use a lot of portamento and rubato in comparison to the earlier recordings by people like Sir Malcolm Sargent and Sir Charles Mackerras…

Those are two things which are very important if you’re interested in historically-accurate string-playing, and even singing as well: there is indeed a lot of portamento, something which is maybe not as in fashion as it should be, but which is very important for the music. And the idea of flexibility and rubato are just something that was got rid of (actually ‘we’ got rid of it in the 70s) and it’s something that we need to get back in, even into early music. Once you start investigating the issue, it’s quite clear that it’s a major part of music-making: this idea of not being vertical, but taking care of lines horizontally. I had such a great time with Scottish Opera Orchestra: I got them sliding around and thinking about intervals, and they were really responsive so it was huge fun working with them on that.

Your singers here (particularly Ralph and Josephine) have fuller voices than we’re maybe used to hearing in this music: did you have much input into the casting process?

Absolutely – that was one of the things that came up at that dinner after the St John Passion. They’re all fantastic singers: take Liz Watts, who I’ve worked with a lot in early music. Now a lot of people have questioned my decision to use Liz in Bach because she’s got a big voice, but every time we did the St John Passion she absolutely floored me with ‘Zerfliesse’, because it was so emotionally committed and fragile. And if you listen to early recordings of singers singing these [G&S] arias and duets (and I don’t mean this in a negative way) it’s never ‘cod’: they sing it like they sing Puccini or Verdi or Mozart, and the commitment to the music is absolutely 150% real, it’s not assumed in any way. And that’s what guides me when I choose singers for anything: first of all, that they have real voices (and of course they have to be great actors – fortunately all the singers that we had in that production were consummate actors as well), but also that they have an ability to really colour the text…and I was very lucky in that I got an absolute dream cast for this. I just couldn’t have wished for better!

And John Mark Ainsley is someone I’ve worked with a lot over the past two decades – I did an Orfeo with him two and a half years ago with the Academy of Ancient Music, and he is so totally dramatically committed, with a huge emotional range…to go from being this great Orfeo to being Sir Joseph Porter here, who’s camp as a row of tents! But the character was based on WH Smith and apparently that’s exactly how he was!

Sullivan parodies operatic convention so much in the Savoy Operas – is there a temptation to overdo those moments so that the humour comes across?

Well, that is so difficult when you’re doing a live performance that’s also being documented on CD: the thing about performing live, and also in a big space, is that you can’t undercook things in any way. But the thing about parody is that if you deliberately approach it as parody then it doesn’t actually work – you have to do a serious ‘cover’, if you like, because it you take the mickey too much it just doesn’t come across in the right way. I think what’s there in the score is enough, but it’s a tricky thing to balance.

Of course there are a lot of opera-lovers who dismiss Sullivan as a ‘serious’ composer: which particular passages in this score would point someone towards who was of that mind-set?

It’s such quality music – we’ve talked about parody, but if you look at the score Sullivan is so obviously an impeccably well-trained musician. He studied in Leipzig when he was 16, so he really knew his stuff. Josephine’s last aria, for instance, is a total homage to Mozart: it’s so open and emotional and fragile, which is absolutely why we needed a great singer like Liz Watts to deliver it.

There are wonderful arias and duets, of course, but those ensembles and finales are in their way just as skilful as the Act II finale of Le nozze di Figaro; like Mozart, Sullivan was a great man of the theatre, he genuinely knew what he was doing. And Mozart had plenty of silly moments as well!

And Captain Corcoran’s ‘mandolin’ aria, where he’s singing to the moon at the beginning of Act II, is another homage to Mozart, to Don Giovanni – it’s even in the same key. And actually, that’s one of the things we did: most people do that aria in C major because it lies very high, but because of that definite reference to ‘Deh vieni’ we made sure that it was in D major!

Might this be the start of a complete Gilbert & Sullivan series…?

If that’s what people want, then we’ll do it! The brilliance of the score, the lightness, the clarity we get from Sullivan is the product of incredible craftsmanship and skilful composition: so yes, I’d love to do more, as long as I get my dream-cast again!

HMS Pinafore is out on Friday 20th May on Linn, and stars Toby Spence as Ralph Rackstraw, Elizabeth Watts as Josephine, John Mark Ainsley as Sir Joseph Porter, Andrew Foster-Williams as Captain Corcoran, and Hilary Summers as Buttercup.

Available Formats: MP3, FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC