Notes and Editorial Reviews
The legendary tenor’s first and most legendary recordings.
Caruso ‘is, typically, “the legendary tenor”, and these are his “legendary” records’. The words are John Steane’s in his typically personal and perspective-building liner-notes. Being “legendary” himself nowadays he immediately qualifies this verdict by stating that they are ‘nothing of the kind’. The danger with myths is that we tend to take quality for granted and listen uncritically. On the other hand we may end up taking out the red pen and becoming fault-finders to dissolve the myth. Steane dissolves a couple of myths himself, concerning the historical importance of these recordings. However, these, Caruso’s very first recordings, are Great Recordings Of
the Century with intrinsic musical and interpretative value. I could end the review here. It is a self-recommending issue. Buy it, listen and learn!
But – and there are buts – this sweeping advice is of little value unless I clarify a few things. There are, I hope, two categories of music-lover who read this review:-
Those who are already familiar with ‘legendary’ recordings: scratchy and dimly recorded discs with narrow dynamics and frequency range. These readers need no encouragement to get this issue. In all probability they already have them. Some may own the original shellacs and play them on an ancient mechanical gramophone with a horn. Stop reading! You probably know more about this than I do.
Those who are familiar with ‘modern’ recordings – some of them ‘legendary’. They may be potential consumers of historical recordings provided they are not scratchy and dimly recorded with narrow dynamics and frequency range. What pleasure is there in listening to inferior sound and unsophisticated singing? I can sympathize with this attitude. I felt that way once too. However my advice is: Give it a try. It takes some time to adjust to this new sound-world. One has to learn. I didn’t like red wine the first time I tasted it either. If you are slightly curious: Go on reading!
My first reaction to these recordings, about forty years ago, was one of disappointment. The piano accompaniments – orchestras were not yet in use for recordings – were clangy and wobbly and lacked nuance. There was a disturbing background noise - bacon-frying is my adopted name for it – and the tone of the singer was undernourished. He seemed to shout at
forte and there was a sameness to the readings that felt uninspired. Gradually I got used to them, could disregard the accompaniments and mentally filtered the bacon-frying. When that was done I was able to concentrate on the singing. Step by step I realized that here was a voice of exceptional quality. It was darkish but considerably less so than it became during his later career. Here he was around thirty and in early bloom. The tone was even from top to bottom, rounded in a way that is supposed to be typically Italian. He had a fast vibrato that I only noticed, it wasn’t disturbing. His breath-control was amazing and he could sing soft pianissimo tones that sent shivers along the spine. That ability has always appealed more to me than braying fortissimos – however impressive those can be. Finally I also found that it wasn’t only great singing I was treated to. This was a singer with insight into the characters and who adjusted his singing to meet interpretative needs.
I have written this overview in the past tense but returning to the recordings for this review I could establish that my old judgements are valid in the present tense as well. Let me give some comments to some of the arias and songs to clarify what I mean.
The first aria, from the nowadays little known Franchetti’s forgotten opera
Germania, is not the track I would recommend beginners to start with. The voice is healthy and strong but he sings at an almost constant forte. In
Questa o quella he lightens the voice, however, and there is a naughty swagger in his singing that mirrors the raucous nobleman’s personality.
Celeste Aida is superb, built up from a soft, loving opening via a heroic climax down to a ravishing pianissimo final note. He sings with fine legato in the
Manon aria and
Una furtive lagrima is lyric and restrained.
E lucevan le stele is another masterly interpretation, marred by a mawkish gulp towards the end.
Cielo e mar has glow and brilliance and the intensity of
Vesti la giubba – after an inward, resigned opening of the preceding recitative – is tangibly emotional, but controlled. Not all the songs are as lovely as those heard in Tito Schipa’s best efforts. However,
Mattinata, with it use of heavy rubato, is glorious. It lends an extra patina of authenticity to have the composer at the piano. The two final tracks are technically noisy. Not everything is perfect, but too much perfection can often result in dullness and nothing here is dull. There are even a couple of false entries (tr. 8 and 18), but with the historical perspective this is charming rather than embarrassing. There was no such thing as editing and the producer was reluctant to spend time and money on a second take when the singing was alright. There is however a defect – if that’s the word – that I have not yet come fully to terms with. Sometimes at forte and in the upper register the voice loses quality, sounds undernourished and flat, just when one wants it to expand and assume that excitingly full and shining tone. I still don’t know why but I believe that it has something to do with the primitive recording technique. Certain frequencies just didn’t register well and there were no equalizers. It can be annoying but I like to think it isn’t Caruso who is at fault.
The transfers are excellent, all except two of the tracks (tr. 3 and 14) were digitally re-mastered in 2008, according to EMI. The voice leaps out of the speakers with amazing clarity and volume. On the downside, the documentation in the booklet isn’t up to EMI’s previous standards in this series. There are no recording dates, no matrix numbers, no original catalogue numbers. All of this was on the sleeve for the LP that used the same material and which I bought almost forty years ago.
From a quite different historic perspective it is astounding to note that at the time of recording almost all the composers represented were still alive and active. Two of them – besides Leoncavallo also Cilea – accompanied Caruso. Franchetti’s
Germania was premiered at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan on 11 March 1902, conducted by Toscanini and with Caruso in the role of Federico Loewe. The two extracts from the opera (tr. 1 and 7) were recorded exactly a month later. The same year, on 6 November,
Adriana Lecouvreur was first performed, also in Milan but at Teatro Lirico with Caruso singing Maurizio. As early as 17 November 1898 at the same theatre, a 25-year-old Caruso had premiered
Fedora with the composer Giordano conducting. Though he didn’t take part in the premiere of
Tosca in 1900 that was also just a couple of years before his first recording sessions. In other words: what we regard as ‘historical’ works were absolutely fresh to Caruso. He had no tradition to fall back on. He created the tradition. This is another reason to hail these recordings as ‘legendary’.
Anyone converted? A last word to those still hesitant: Give it a chance and the odds are good that you will be hooked. If you are not: feel satisfied that you at least are the owner of a disc with ‘the legendary tenor’ with his first and most ‘legendary recordings’.
-- Göran Forsling, MusicWeb International ary tenor’s first and most legendary recordings.
Works on This Recording
Germania: Studenti! Udite! by Alberto Franchetti
Enrico Caruso (Tenor),
Salvatore Cottone (Piano)
Written: 1902; Italy
Rigoletto: Questa o quella by Giuseppe Verdi
Enrico Caruso (Tenor),
Salvatore Cottone (Piano)
Written: 1851; Italy
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