> Nellie Melba. The 1904 London Recordings [JW]: Classical CD Reviews- Sept 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Nellie Melba. The complete Gramophone Recordings Volume 1
The 1904 London Recordings.
Paolo TOSTI (1846-1916)

Herman BEMBERG (1859-1931)

Nymphes et sylvains
Chant Venétien
Les anges pleurent
Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)

La Traviata; Ah! fors’e lui
La Traviata; Follie…Sempre libera
Rigoletto; Caro nome che il mio cor

Comin’ thro’ the Rye
LUIGI ARDITI (1822-1903)

Se saran rose
Gaetano DONIZETTI (1797-1848)

Lucia di Lammermoor; Del Ciel demente un riso
Georg Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759)

Il Penseroso; Sweet Bird That Shunn’st the Noise of Folly
Ambroise THOMAS (1811-1896)

Hamlet; Et maintenant, écoutez ma chanson
Hamlet; A vos jeux
GUY D’HARDELOT (1858-1936)

Three green Bonnets
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)

Le Nozze di Figaro; Porgi amor
Reynaldo HAHN (1875-1947)

Si mes vers avaient des ailes
Giacomo PUCCINI (1858-1924)
La Bohème; Donde lieta
J S BACH (1685-1750) - Charles GOUNOD (1818-1893)

Ave Maria
Nellie Melba, soprano
With variously Landon Ronald, piano, Herman Bemberg, piano, Philippe Gaubert, flute, anonymous orchestra conducted by Landon Ronald
Recorded 1904
NAXOS HISTORICAL 8.110737 [67’00]


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Melba procrastinated for some time before agreeing to a series of test recordings in March 1904, to be made in the privacy of her London drawing room in Great Cumberland Place. She wasn’t actually to sign a contract until 11th May and naturally attached a series of stringent provisos and conditions; a very high royalty payment and her discs to be sold for a guinea each, a strategic shilling higher than those of Tamagno. The huge cost indicates the luxury status of such things in the first decade of the twentieth century. Published in July the series – not everything was issued – has remained a source of vibrant debate ever since occasioning the kind of argument perhaps singularly to be located in collectors of Vocal Art.

Melba had come to prominence in the late 1880s having only recently embarked on a course of serious and systematic study, famously at the Ecole Marchesi, and when these recordings were made she was 43. Given the rather primitive nature of the recording venue there are few obvious audible weaknesses in Melba’s singing. Her colouration is splendid, voice production easy and fluent, her trill often of evenness and magnificence; a certain flatness of pitch at the top of her range has occasionally been cited but contemporary evidence is that her intonation was impeccable; her legato is of an elevated distinction, even judged by the standards of her dazzling contemporaries.

The Engineer’s introduction and cry of "Go!" is one rather charming feature of the earlier discs as are the final muttered comments at the end of each side – one of them the displeased Melba herself in Handel’s Sweet Bird announcing, after her mistake, that "Now we’ll have to do it again". Landon Ronald is a frequent accompanist, sounding stiff and not yet warmed up in Tosti’s Mattinata. Melba is uneven and it could hardly be otherwise. Good in Bemberg’s slight Nymphes et sylvains (he was a camp follower and lover of hers) she is coarse and wild in Follie! Sempre libera from Traviata – which unsurprisingly wasn’t issued on 78. Del ciel from Lucia di Lammermoor however is quite splendid, fluent, mobile and eviscerating in its effect. The Thomas Hamlet scene is substantially intact – one feature that is so valuable about Melba’s discs is that she was personally acquainted with many of the composers, Gounod, Thomas, Verdi, Delibes, Saint-Saëns and Massenet among them – and we can hear those distinctive adjuncts of her technique that must have been heard by those who wrote for her or directed her. Her trills are superb, her portamenti a fascinating performance detail, the simplicity of her impersonation judicious and deeply impressive, her expressivity exceptional.

Her legato in Rigoletto overcomes the inadequate accompaniment, a rum-di-dum little band and as she grows in confidence she essays a tremendous Sempre libera. Pleasurable simplicity was certainly not alien to her – D’Hardelot’s Three Green Bonnets is a charmer though she doesn’t sound comfortable in Porgi amor from the Marriage of Figaro. Back to form immediately she is unambiguously superb in Hahn’s Si mes vers with ravishing control of line. How important as well to hear an extract from one of her greatest triumphs, La Bohème.

This is the first of Naxos’ projected four volume series devoted to Melba’s art. With distinguished transfers and fine notes by Peter Dempsey this is a noteworthy start. This company goes from strength to strength.


Jonathan Woolf

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