The Legacy - Part 1This article first appeared in the Classical Singer magazine, April 2000
It is ironic that despite the fact that we live in such a technically advanced age of recording so few singers take advantage of learning from the work of their predecessors. (By this I am referring to 78 r.p.m. recordings made between 1898 and 1950.) It is admirable to want to interpret an aria your own way but it is another thing entirely to ignore the vastly rich tradition that is now so easily available. During the last 100 years countless recordings have been made of the operatic and song literature. Some of them are indispensable, others one would prefer to forget. But there is something to be learned from every recording. Even if it is how NOT to sing something. Today's listeners are remarkably fortunate. Because of the recent lifting of various copyrights on early recordings and changes in international politics during the last few decades, the plethora of material that has become available to us is staggering. We have become, however, gluttons for quantity. We are collectors of time as well as artists. This situation is proven by an obvious interest in "complete" editions - the collecting of a singer's complete recorded legacy - including alternate takes, as well as unpublished and/or test recordings. All of which have undeniable allure. These editions are invaluable for the curious student and give important insights into early recording artists and how they made and felt about their efforts. They also give us the luxury of being able to sample a singer's discography at our leisure and as often as we wish. The fact that today you can hold Claudia Muzio's entire legacy of over one hundred and forty recordings in the palm of your hand is a remarkable achievement in the industry's technology. In previous eras few people had the ability to locate all the recordings of a prolific singer much less the financial resources to buy them or the space in which to house them. The situation is becoming so commonplace, however, that we are in danger of taking these remarkable circumstances for granted.
Although I have heard complaints about the cost of CDs, it is important to keep it in perspective. In 1902 the cost of a single-sided 78 r.p.m. Columbia disc of Marcella Sembrich singing (a severely cut) 4-minute version of "Ernani Involami" was $2.00 - the cost of a pair of shoes. The typical price at Tower Records for a Preiser or Pearl CD is $17.99 (less if you order on-line). With twenty or more recordings per CD that breaks down to little more than $. 90 per track or recording. So compared with what people had to pay in 1902, we are paying next to nothing today. Also, most major cities have second-hand CD stores where you can find many of the recordings I am talking about for even less. Even more amazing, you can listen to the same selection a hundred times in a row if you like without worrying that you are destroying the precious grooves holding the music. Something unheard of even 20 years ago.
So where does one start? And how does one listen?
Making the Original Recordings
First, a little background. Making recordings was not a pleasant task back in 1908, at least for the singer. To go into any detail would take up too much space here. Suffice it to say that many artists found the experience a nightmare. Stuck in a cramped, claustrophobic little room crowded by either a piano or orchestral instruments the singer was forced to sing into an antiseptic-looking horn sticking out from the wall. Depending upon whether he or she was singing loud or softly, the singer was pushed back and forth toward or away from the horn. The singer had to remember cuts made to accommodate the four-minute time span forced to re-map most of your arias to accommodate severe cuts in order to match the four-minute time span allotted per side while under pressure not to make any mistakes lest the entire recording should have to be redone. To be honest, it is a wonder that any decent recordings got made at all. The recordings we hear today, some 100 years later, are truly live performances - accurate demonstrations of what these singers could do at the moment they made the recordings since there was no splicing back in those days. And for that reason alone some of them are marvels. By 1925 and the advent of electrical recording, the experience was somewhat better for the singer though still not ideal. The electrical process certainly made things easier for the restorer because it was only then that the recording speed was standardized to the 78 revolutions per minute that gives these records their common name. Before 1925, there was no set speed; recordings ranged from about 64 to 80 r.p.m. The recording and playback speed was seldom listed on the label, and when it was listed, it was invariably incorrect.
Although the best way to listen to these old disks is on the now-antique machines they were originally made for, the CD restorations done by Keith Hardwick, Ward Marston, Mark Obert-Thorn, Seth Winner (and others), will serve extremely well. Never before have restorers of these old recordings shown such loving care in their work and extracted such outstanding results.
How To Listen
When listening to 78 recordings today it is important to remember something foreign to anyone who grew up during or after the LP era. This is the fact that acoustic and electrical recordings of arias were meant to be savored separately, not listened to in 70 minute chunks, one right after another. One can only absorb so much information during a period of listening - and everyone has a different length attention span. The aria recital is a modern concept that dates from the beginning of the LP era (1949). It was a rather contrived effort to maximize the use of the new recording medium and the loosening of time restrictions.
To get the most out of these antique recordings one must approach them with patience and discretion. That is the secret to the art of modern-day listening to pre-1950 recordings. They should be listened to the way they were meant to be heard originally . In June of 1990, the great British critic of vocal traditions, John Steane, wrote a superb article for the magazine Opera Now. He outlined a way of tackling old recordings that, for a lark, I decided to try myself, to see if it really worked. Steane suggested one listen intently and in short doses. I chose a 1903 recording of the tenor Francesco Marconi singing the Ingemisco from the Verdi Requiem (The Harold Wayne Collection, Volume 2, Symposium CD, 1069). I followed Steane's guidelines, listening to the piece once, very carefully. Then I played it again right away. Then I took off an hour, did something else and then returned and replayed the recording twice again. By then I easily recognized Marconi's timbre and his manner of singing as if an old friend . By the time I returned to the recording the next day I had listened to it a number of times - each time without distraction and felt that I knew it inside out. I knew when, where, and why Marconi breathed; I came to understand and appreciate his phrasing and his interpretation. I had begun to form definite opinions on both the good and bad aspects of his performance based on a comfortable familiarity with the recording. More importantly, after hearing his recording so often, I had the background knowledge as to why I felt that way and so was able to compare it to the vocal styles and traditions that were part of my own training and understanding. The most fascinating thing was that I was no longer bothered by the scratchy sound quality of the 1903 recording. It was a wonderful, exhilarating and very satisfying experience. I strongly suggest you try it. But I warn you, it must be done without distractions; you can't do this while reading a book, watching TV, talking on the phone or doing bills. The ability to concentrate in order to listen through the often primitive recording process and extract the core of a singer's voice should not be a difficult feat for today's multi-tasking society. It does require some patience but the rewards, however, well repay the effort.
The Reissues on CD
There are a number of companies that are indispensable for today's singers - Marston, Nimbus, Pearl, Preiser, Romophone, Symposium, IRCC. All can be bought at Tower, HMV and Virgin Record stores - though the last, IRCC, maybe more difficult to find. You should probably check their web site and get information there. Each label has its own set of artistic priorities.
Different from the other labels, Pearl and Symposium claim fidelity to the original recording without any "cleaning-up" of the sound through equalizers or filters. That is an admirable policy (and often produces startling results) but, depending on the quality of the original matrix, it can also be grating and hard on the ears. Generally, Pearl concentrates on the more famous singers. Because of its connection with Dr. Harold Wayne, Symposium offers some of the rarest recordings to be found - many unfamiliar even to the most seasoned collectors. How many singers reading this article know the work of Giovanni Gravina, Guerrina Fabbri, Giuseppe Kaschmann or Fanny Toresella? Many of the traditions that we now take for granted stem from the artistic struggle and work of such artists.
The policy of the English label, Romophone, is to release complete editions of artists - including un-issued and alternate takes. This allows the singer/student/collector to make invaluable comparisons between recordings. Absolutely priceless are Romophone's volumes devoted to the complete recordings of Claudia Muzio (3), Elisabeth Rethberg (2), Beniamino Gigli (5), Amelita Galli-Curci (4), Rosa Ponselle (3), Pol Placon, Marcella Sembrich (2), Nellie Melba, Luisa Tetrazzini, Edith Mason, Lucrezia Bori (2), Mattia Battistini, Emmy Destinn, Ernestine Schuman-Heink, Giovanni Martinelli, John McCormack (2) and Tito Schipa. Many of these are works in progress with additional volumes to follow in the future.
Ward Marston is one of today's premiere audio conservationists and has done many of Romophone and Pearl's splendid restorations. He recently began his own CD line called Marston. One of his pet projects is the series of complete operas from the early years of the last century recorded for the French firm, Pathe. Not to be missed are his volumes dedicated to single artists including the dramatic sopranos Johanna Gadski (2) and Rosa Raisa (the original Turandot) and bass, Marcel Journet. (As well as those I mention in my suggestions)
Nimbus' unconventional reproduction of early acoustical and electrical recordings (played back acoustically, through a horn, then recorded via microphone, picking up some of the reverberation in the room) is controversial. I tend to prefer the Nimbus recordings as appendices, giving an alternate picture of a singer's voice, a hint of how they might have sounded in a concert hall. Budget-priced and with a large catalogue, Nimbus (like all the other labels mentioned) is recommended without reservation. Each listener will have to decide for themselves the "type" of restoration they prefer.
The aural priorities of the German firm Preiser sit in-between Pearl and Romophone. Originally an LP label (Lebendige Vergangenheit) famous for 3 decades for its elegant purple albums, Preiser now offers a huge CD catalogue of acoustic and electrical singers (many of them quite obscure) in superb sound and often intriguing programming. (Ever hear of Violetta di Strozzi? Spintos take heed - you won't be disappointed.) There are many gems in the Preiser catalogue and they are worth seriously investigating.
Collections and Compilations
Perhaps one of the best ways to acquaint oneself with the old recordings and singers is through compilations. One gets a variety of voices and repertoire that often can spark interest in a composer or aria where before there was none. Nimbus has quite a few that are certainly worth looking into. One of the most interesting companies for this is the small label called The International Record Collector's Society (IRCC). Twenty-one CDs have been released by this company and there are some indispensable releases including gems from forgotten Italian and American operas. Special mention must be made, however, of their remarkable series "Souvenirs from Verismo Operas." This series should be mandatory listening for any singer performing works considered part of the Verismo movement in opera. Now up to 4 volumes, it is a treasure trove of rare music and (often obscure) singers. Who today remembers such verismo gems as Virgilio's Jana, Franchetti's Germania, Figilia di Iorio or Pacchierotti's L'Albatro? Everyone is familiar with Leoncavallo's Pagliacci, but how about his Rolandvon Berlin, or Parelli's Hermes? When these operas were first performed the Italian firm Fonotipia recorded excerpts from these "new" works and IRCC has now collected them together and presented them in outstanding, attractive releases. Including translations, photos and biographies of the singers and historical comment, these volumes are absolutely priceless not only for all the intriguing information and rare recordings offered but also for the vivid glimpse into the hey-day of that movement and the fascinating stylistic priorities shown by the singers at the time of the premier performances. To become familiar with these early discs is to come to understand the verismo movement, its vocal style and the good and bad traditions that it has bequeathed to us.
There are also some surprises. For example I bought Volume I - mainly because it had some unusual recordings from Mascagni's Iris. But the second band on the disc, a baritone aria from Franchetti's Germania, took me by complete surprise. I knew of Germania because of Caruso's famous recordings of the tenor arias. But this second track was an aria called "Tu m'eri innanzi" recorded in 1910 by Pasquale Amato. It is difficult to describe the tremendous impact of this simple piece and Amato's eloquent singing. A pleading aria of frustrated love it remains one of the most haunting performances I have experienced on disc. And Amato's vibrantly intense, obviously sincere performance and his ability to disappear into the surrounding instruments during the final chords are heart-breaking. The CD is worth twice the money I paid for that track alone.
Vintage Records on the Mega Labels
Of the large commercial labels EMI reigns supreme in releasing archival material. It has its Great Artist series - which includes such luminaries as Muzio, Welitsch, Schipa, and Supervia. Their CD of Chaliapin in Russian opera is a must for any bass singing that repertoire. Superbly transferred by Keith Hardwick, the disc is precious for its inclusion of the live, Covent Garden 1928 Boris excerpts - including a death scene of devastating realism and dignity that has yet to be surpassed over seventy years later. This past December, Testament secured the rights to release Volume 3 of "The Record of Singing" (1926-1939) (originally published by EMI), a 10-CD cornucopia of over 200 singers which contains many treasures. One of the sleepers, for example, is on CD 10, a Polish song by Karloicz, "Pamietam ciche, jasne, zlote dnie" (I Remember Golden Days) recorded in 1928 by the Polish coloratura, Ada Sari. Sari was what I term a "major-minor" artist in that she may not have been as internationally known in the operatic arena as other artists of her era but she was nonetheless an important singer who sat on its fringes. Aside from showing her excellent legato, fascinating timbre and sweetly-floated high pianissimo, it is an example of singing that I, for one, would feel all the more poorer for not having been able to experience. Although not cheap, this 10-CD release is of tremendous importance to singers (as are all pre-1950 recordings) since it helps define and give examples of the many various schools of training flourishing during the last century - most of which have since dissappeared due to the international embracing of the "global village."
For Lieder specialists the legacy may not be quite as vast but it is still impressive. EMI has its multi-volume Schubert series. Volume I (3 CDs) includes recordings from 1898 to 1939 documenting the stylistic traditions of lied throughout the past century. It is a remarkable journey. Also on EMI is the justly famous Hugo Wolf Society "The Complete Edition" (1931-1938) (5 CDs) which includes some 145 songs in 148 performances by pre-Schwarzkopf/Fischer-Dieskau singers. Comparisons between the two differing eras and interpretive approaches are instructive and surprising. Handsomely packaged and presented, (as are all the sets I have mentioned) it is something to treasure. Wolf wrote many types of songs and the ability to hear so many of them in one sitting is an unbelievable, kaleidoscopic treat.
The Opera House Editions
EMI also has the 2-volume (6 CDs) La Scala Edition (1878-1946) which features recordings made by singers who appeared at that house during those years. A remarkable set and worth investigating. Then there is Pearl's absolutely indispensable 5-volume (15 CD set) "Singers of Imperial Russia" which offers recordings that are not only fabulously rare but that are also remarkably present in their sound quality. It is hard to believe that some of these discs were made literally, 100 years ago. American tenors not familiar with the work of the Russian, Ivan Ershov, should be. Ershov only made 10 sides for G&T & Columbia around 1903-1905 but sang repertoire ranging from Bach and Handel to Meyerbeer and Wagner with the dexterity of a Rockwell Blake, the finesse of a Kraus and the intensity of a young Corelli. Or how about Medea Mei-Figner, the soprano who created the role of Lisa in Tchaikovsky's Pique Dame? Her creator's recording of the third-act aria is quite illuminating. (Both singers are on Volume I.) Then there is Pearl's multi-volume Covent Garden series.
The extent of treasures is beyond belief and a singer can learn much about the vascilations of operatic style from such anthologies.
Below are a few suggestions to give you a little nudge in the right direction . I confess they are idiosyncratic. But I have tried to touch on some of the lesser-known artists that deserve hearing. There are so many, many more.
So the next time you have to work on the Queen of the Night - look for recordings made by Miliza Korjus, Maria Ivogun and Frieda Hempel as well as those by Gruberova, Popp and Moser. Or if you are a tenor and looking for a better grasp on the Improviso from Chenier - check out Ferrauto, Zanelli, Martinelli and Gigli in addition to Del Monaco, Domingo and Pavarotti. We singers come from a truly grand tradition and the results of your listening will not only surprise you but also enrich your art and your life.
Leila BenSedira (The Classical Collector) Algerian-born but French-based, this exquisite artist made some superb recordings, most of which are unfamiliar to Americans. Sweet-voiced, musical and individual, all her disks (made in the early 1930s) demonstrate the high degree of art present in the French school at that time.
Spinto & Dramatic:
Florence Austral (Pearl) Considered by many to be the greatest Brunhilde before Flagstad, Austral was extremely versatile - famous for performing Lucia's Mad Scene in concert. Pearl's release shows her shining voice in music ranging from Haydn to Wagner with Gounod, Mendelssohn and Chopin thrown in as well. Not to be missed.
Emma Calve (Marston, Romophone, Pearl) Legendary and volatile, Emma Calve's recordings (c. 1908) remain a constant fascination to both collectors and students. Calve was known for her training with one of the last castrati, and her recordings reflect that diversity ranging from the contralto depths of Carmen to the coloratura heights of Zora in David's La Perle du Bresil (which demonstrates her fabled "fourth register," a haunting, disembodied head voice developed in her studies with one of the last of the castrati.)
Bernardo De Muro (Bongiovanni) Short of stature but not of voice, this clarion-voiced tenor was a favorite of Mascagni's. His recordings (1912-1928) of arias from Otello, Chenier, Trovatore, Isabeau, Carmen and others should be required listening for any spinto tenor.
Hermann Jadlowker (Marston) Jadlowker's many recordings, made in the early years of the last century (1908-1924) prove that there is no reason why voices capable of singing Wagner should not also be able to sing the pyrotechnics of Mozart or Rossini. Jadlowker had a melting messa de voce, a sweet head voice and a trill to rival that of any coloratura soprano. His recordings are of great importance and Marston gives an excellent cross-section of his immense repertoire - including some excellent lied.
Titta Ruffo (Pearl, Preiser) No self-respecting baritone should go without hearing Ruffo's recordings of the operatic repertoire. Like his contemporary, Caruso, Ruffo re-shaped the expectations of the listening public and to understand how and why he was able to do that one has only to hear his discs.
Nazzareno DeAngelis (Preiser) Famous for the first (1929) electrical recording of Boito's Mefistofele, the 16 sides presented by Preiser, also from the 1920s, show this black-voiced bass' tremendous range of abilities from Rossini to Wagner.
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