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The complete recordings Vols.1-3 [Naxos]/Tenor of the Century [ASV]
Recorded 1902-1920
NAXOS HISTORICAL 8. 110703/04/08 [72.19/73.52/69.22]
ASW CD AJS241 (2cds) [78.18/74.24]


There is a simple choice here. You can start to build up a detailed collection of the complete recordings in a painstaking year by year approach (these three Naxos volumes are respectively 1902-03, 1903-06, 1906-08) or go for the sampler approach and buy a pair of ASV CDs consisting of 44 recordings ranging from 1903-1920. The highly expert Ward Marston is doing a sterling job in what is described as 'new restoration' and there are some real gems including Caruso accompanied on the piano by composers such as Cilea and Giordano. The pioneer recording engineer Fred Gaisberg, whose name would in due course become synonymous with HMV and EMI, undertook recording tours to Europe as early as 1899, going on to Russia over the next two years, but it was in the spring of 1902 that he struck gold with the 29 year-old Caruso. In March that year Caruso had scored a triumph in Franchetti's opera Germania (the first two tracks on Volume One are taken from that work), and in May he was booked for Covent Garden to sing with Melba in Rigoletto. Sensing something special Gaisberg cabled the tenor with the offer of a recording session and asking his fee. Ten songs for £100 came the reply, which Gaisberg's masters, the Gramophone Company, forbade him to accept.[see footnote]Fortunately for us (and for the Gramophone Company) Gaisberg agreed and the session took place on the afternoon on 11th April 1902 in a room on the third floor of a Milan hotel. News travelled fast and the discs sold like hot cakes, making a fortune for the company, and encouraging singers such as Emma Calvé and Antonio Scotti, who did not wish to miss the bandwagon, to get themselves signed up. The recording industry, one might say, had been born.

The first ten tracks of the 27 on the first volume (which covers almost all the recordings he made before signing exclusively with the Victor Talking Machine) are the result of that first session (and incidentally all these transfers are reproduced at exactly the same speed at which they were originally recorded, which was by no means always at 78 rpm). By today's standards these ten tracks are heavily flawed (and I am not referring to the inevitable hiss or distortion) with false entries, throat-clearing, the use of falsetto for the top final Bb in 'Celeste Aida', a shambolic early-by-one-bar start to 'E lucevan le stelle' from Tosca which takes a page to correct, some gruesome piano playing by the inconsistent Salvatore Cottone, but there are also some utterly glorious moments. Somehow the flaws which occurred that day all add to the charm and gives a sense of occasion to what must been a revelatory experience for Gaisberg. As a piece of living history they are priceless. We are listening to the voice of a true tenor, the baritonal quality would come later, sheer power, with verismo opera and the Neapolitan song given their best interpretation by the vocal chords of their greatest exponent. You'll find a fair amount of duplication even within one disc, so the title of the series 'Complete Recordings' will in time prove to be literally that. There is not always an improvement second time around, with, for example, the aria from Aida brought to an abrupt halt this time to avoid that top Bb altogether, though he does make amends in Tosca. The first time you hear 'Vesti la giubba' from Pagliacci (which would become Caruso's virtual signature tune) that demonic laughter and heart-rending tearful ending will send shivers down your spine.

By 1904 the improvement in Caruso's voice is remarkable (track 7 on Vol. 2 finally produces 'Celeste Aida' as Verdi intended it to be sung), hugely confident and devoid of vocal inhibition, buoyed up by a new contract with Victor, and more importantly by his conquest a year earlier of New York's Metropolitan Opera, whose winter season he would dominate until his early death at 48 in 1921. He developed a large repertoire of roles and, according to Gaisberg's reckoning, had earned himself $5 million in recording fees by his death (a staggering amount when translated into today's value). Not only is all this reflected in his now ringing tones, but more importantly by 11th February 1906 Caruso's voice gets the support it expects in the opera house with the accompaniment provided for the first time by an orchestra (track 20 Vol.2) in an aria from Flotow's Martha delivered with astonishing breath control and style (also true a couple of tracks later of his tenderly impassioned singing of Faust's aria from Gounod's opera of the same name). The following heroically sung 'Di quella pira' is not quite the same a semitone lower, the ringing top C here a B but still exciting.

By Volume 3 horizons have been broadened (despite beginning with another 'Celeste Aida' - occasionally with misjudged breathing here - but now of course with orchestra). These are the years 1906-1908 and though the diet of composers remains largely the same (Verdi, Puccini, Donizetti, the French staple diet and those popular Neapolitan songs) Caruso is now joined by colleagues in duets, trios, quartets etc, including artists such as Antonio Scotti, Geraldine Farrar, Nellie Melba, Marcella Sembrich, and Louise Homer. The sound is now clearer, despite the orchestra still sounding uncomfortably like background music to an early Disney cartoon in their oompah-arrangementsand hurried introductions or postludes, but even this is successfully overshadowed by wonderful singing. The close friendship between Scotti and Caruso shines through in the fine blend and perfect match of tone in their duets from La forza del destino, La Boheme, and especially Pearl Fishers, but of those in the Rigoletto quartet (here with another downward transposition of a semitone) it is Caruso who inevitably dominates.

If you want a short cut through all this then ASV provide a two-disc CD covering the years 1903-1920 but it is a far less comprehensive journey despite the familiar territory of repertoire and singing colleagues. Try it as a taster but then start building your Caruso library with Naxos Historical.  

Christopher Fifield


Information supplied by Howard S Friedman (January 2008)

In the fall of 1994 Peter Martland dispelled all of the mythology surrounding Caruso's first recording session. Martland quoted generously from extant telegrams and letters between Alfred Michaelis, the Italian Branch Manager, and William Barry Owen, the Managing director of the Gramophone Company in London. Martland dispels completely the myth of the supposed cable from London forbidding payment of Caruso's exhorbitant fee.

Association for Recorded Sound Collections Journal,
Martland, S. P. Caruso’s First Recordings: Myth and Reality, in ARSC Journal, Vol. 25 No. 2, pp 193-201, Fall, 1994



Recording (historical)

Naxos Volume 1  Crotchet     Amazon UK   AmazonUS  

Naxos Volume 2  Crotchet     Amazon UK   AmazonUS  

Naxos Volume 3  Crotchet     Amazon UK   AmazonUS  

ASV  Crotchet     Amazon UK   AmazonUS  CDNow

    Amazon UK   AmazonUS  CDNow

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