I think most readers will be at least partially acquainted with the genesis of this series. Briefly, the first volume of twelve LPs was issued back in 1977 and re-released five years after re-pitching. The second volume, this time of thirteen LPs, had emerged in 1979. Volume three was released (again 13 LPs) in 1985 and was released by Testament on CD in 1999. Volume 4 emerged on 8 LPs in 1989 and was then digitally remastered on CD in 1991.
So - if you’re still with me - what we have with this new edition is a distillation of the previous releases into a specially selected ten CD collection derived from the four released volumes but using the pitch corrected transfers as source material. Those long familiar with the way this series was grouped will now need to note that this way of doing this has been retained. All matrix, issue and accompaniment details is present - a superb resource. Obviously this is an EMI based survey so companies outside its umbrella will not be covered. The timeline for this first boxed volume is 1899 to 1952 or as the rubric has it, ‘From 1899 to the end of the 78 era’.
Given the inherent limitations of the subject coverage this can only be a partial survey of singing on record. Many objections to missing singers can best be met by reference to the fact that they recorded for non-EMI affiliated companies. But EMI, in whatever form it then existed, still managed to corner a large number of prominent singers and the roll call here is unceasingly brilliant. A brief survey follows of what is on offer.
The first disc gives us Moreschi, the ‘Last Castrato’ who was recorded in the Sistine Chapel in 1904. I was under the impression that some restoration and pitch stabilisation of his recordings has been undertaken recently and might show his singing in a more favourable light. We will have to await notice of any such work in that area. The roll call of totemic singers - Patti, Albani, Sembrich (the latter singing Mozart with Eames) only serves to presage Melba, Marchesi, Farrar and Homer. It’s that sort of collection. I wish someone could pitch stabilise the piano accompaniment to Santley’s sides in the way Marston has managed to do with similarly bad French-made sides of the same period. One oddity that emerges early on is the basically unstable way singers are characterised. It’s fair enough to have a section marked ‘The French’ but to stick Mary Garden there is to court problems. Of course she is closely associated with the French repertoire - we all know that - but she wasn’t French. Henschel is in the English speaking sections, singing Schumann.
The second disc fortunately includes Alessandro Bonci - who tends to be overlooked a little these days. It also muddies waters with its nomenclature of ‘Wagner and the German Style’ and opening up with Marie Gutheil-Schroder singing Boieldieu and Hempel singing Donizetti. It’s clear that the attempt to document national and other styles is one fraught with danger, not least because Emmy Destinn(ova) is co-opted to this school; her single side is of Smetana, which renders this section bizarrely inappropriate.
I know that critical smart-aleckry is easy, but I wish that these designations had been properly thought-through and revised. The bathetic category ‘The French Tradition in Decline’ gives us Dinh Gilly, Fanny Heldy and Journet amongst others - not quite a terminal decline then - though the Verismo singers grouping is more cogent. The ‘English-Speaking World’ includes such oddities as French-Canadian Eva Gauthier singing Duparc. Joseph Hislop is there but not Walter Widdop, who certainly should be, in preference to Hislop if need be, in my view. Fortunately Anglo-Australia triumphs in the Handel duet featuring Peter Dawson and Robert Radford. CD 5 is one of the most amazing rosters in the set unleashing one powerhouse German singer after another; it starts with Melchior (yes, I know he’s not German) and ends with Sigrid Onegin by way of Friedrich Schorr, Tauber, Schmidt, Hüsch etc - and then carries on the good work into volume seven with the women; Schumann, Berger, Lemnitz, Rethberg, Lehmann. Typographically a ‘French School’ or similar entry has been missed in disc seven. The unwary are surely not going to confuse Claire Croiza or Ninon Vallin with the powerhouse Italian singers that precede them and these production oversights do happen, but it’s nevertheless a shame. It’s especially disappointing considering it recurs in disc nine when there’s no demarcation between the French and the German singers. What’s less defendable is the hodge-podge contained in the next Anglo-American school, in which Marian Anderson and Clara Butt are track mates and Heddle Nash is sandwiched between Kullman and Crooks. If Mary Garden is going into the French section why not Maggie Teyte who is solidly cast with the Saxons? A further resurrection of this ‘school’ - surely it’s no such thing - comes in disc eight with a rag-tag selection: Tourel singing Bizet, Pears singing a Britten arrangement, and the inevitable Ferrier, Traubel, Tucker et al. The British component is actually represented by these two ‘extreme’ voices (Ferrier, Pears) - the rest, bar Oscar Natzke, are Americans.
The East-European/Slavic School is hobbled by Destinn being subsumed to the German school and other companies recording in that region. The roll call is nevertheless pitiful; Novotna, Slobodskaya and Reizen. In case you’re thinking that’s it CD 9 pops up with another similar section called ‘The Russian and Slavonic Schools’ which sounds worryingly similar. In fact it’s identical. Blachut is here as the sole Czech amongst Russians. When are ‘Western’ companies - I’m not only citing EMI, but specifically small independents who could do well in this area - going to get to grips with Czech recordings? The last disc is devoted to Italian singers - and it’s an impressive roll call.
That’s it for the first box. The follow-up, Volume Five, takes us from the LP age to the digital era; 1953-2007. There are ten CDs in this set as well. Broad groupings are retained, and there is separation into voice types - with some exceptions, such as the Wagner items from the 1950s, and Baroque and early singers. Again there is one singer per song. Compiler Tony Locantro admits that his selection is ‘partial’ and not comprehensive. I have no quibble with that.
The first disc covers Wagner thematically by opera and the great names are all here. The second disc reverts to voice types, opening with two bizarrely unexpected items: Sutherland sings Korngold and Bliss - in a relaxation of the ‘single track’ policy. It’s also unusual to hear Gilbert and Sullivan in this context so there’s a wildcard element to Elsie Morison’s selection of The sun whose rays. June Bronhill - probably not well remembered now - also sings Offenbach in this disc. In the Tenors section, which begins on disc three, it's good to find those splendid artists Henri Legay and Albert Lance - the former singing Adam in 1956, the latter Massenet in 1957 - as well as Richard Lewis (Handel), Charles Craig (Puccini) and Ronald Dowd singing Stravinsky. There’s a section from Finzi’s Dies natalis in the famed Wilfred Brown recording. Corelli and Pavarotti are heavyweight singers in this group but they’re interspersed amongst Gedda, James King and the like; not by nationality. The roll call is really self-selecting though the repertoire, as we have seen, can catch out the unawary. But a running order of Margaret Price, Beverly Sills, Vishnevskaya, Heather Harper and Leontyne Price is no bad thing.
By and large this ten disc selection is self-recommending in respect of individual artists. But it’s good to get someone like Irina Arkhipova in an extract from her 1977 recording of Prokofiev’s Ivan the Terrible with Muti, alongside the more expected Janet Baker and Marilyn Horne - the latter doing Roussel incidentally. The Singers of Baroque and Early Music series can invite brickbats. Certainly Helen Donath and Arleen Auger sang Baroque music...but not only. And as for Susan Graham in this category, it seems peculiar to say the least. There is a countertenor selection and a ‘young hopefuls’ category as well; most are untried and untested. A case of premature kite-flying some may think, allied to economic self-interest, rather than objective analysis.
Further, in some of the items the extracts do sound somewhat problematically long, given the overarching ambition of the series as a whole. And the lack of singers from other companies is again an insurmountable problem. Other than that, these formidable boxes will prove foundation stones for those piqued by the vocal bug.