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Nellie Melba. Complete Gramophone Company Recordings Volume 2. The 1904 London Recordings.
Paolo TOSTI (1846-1916)

La Serenata
Goodbye
Charles GOUNOD (1818-1893)

Romeo et Juliette – Je veux vivre dans ce rêve
Ah! Je ris de me voir (Jewel Song)
Herman BEMBERG (1859-1931)

Chant Hindou
Sur le lac
L’amour est pur comme la flamme
Giacomo PUCCINI (1858-1924)

La Bohème – Donde lieta usci al tuo grido d’amore
Mi chiamano Mimi
TRADITIONAL

God save the King
Auld Lang Syne
CLARIBEL (Mrs Charles BARNARD)

Come back to Erin
Stephen FOSTER (1826-1864)

Old Folks at Home
SCOTT-GATTY

Good Night
Landon RONALD (1872-1938)

Away on the Hill there runs a Stream
Henry BISHOP (1786-1855)

Home Sweet Home
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750) – Charles GOUNOD (1818-1893)

Ave Maria
Georges BIZET (1838-1875)

Pastorale
Edouard LALO (1823-1892)

Le Roi d’Ys – Puisqu’on ne peut
Nellie Melba, soprano
With various accompaniments
Recorded 1904-06
NAXOS 8.110738
[61.58]



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Though Volume 2 of Naxos’s Melba series – four are planned – denotes this as the 1904 London recordings in fact only the first four come from that year, all deriving from a single date in October. The remainder is from two concentrated periods of recording activity, from 4-5 September 1905 and 7 July 1906. On all these occasions Melba sang the usual variety of material, from high to low, with an equally heterogeneous collection of accompaniments. The more rarified discs appeared on the Melba issues of the Gramophone Company label – lilac coloured and costing a princely guinea. The lighter items, by contrast, were on a cheaper label but still cost 12/6, no laughing matter in 1906.

Fully established now as a recording artist following her jockeying in 1904 – when Melba held out for a long time and then attempted to forbid publication of the recorded sides – the twenty selections that comprise this volume are of a significantly more consistent standard. They amplify the qualities to be heard in those 1904 sides whilst limiting the occasional squally histrionics that marred a few of them.

There aren’t limitless opportunities here to appreciate her coloratura but when the chance occurs it’s magnetic to hear. Her uppermost register is still a little more effortful than it must have been in her very best, pre-recording days, but the voice production itself is still free, unforced and easy. Her trills are quick and even, her legato very special when she has occasion to employ it - because the amount of ballad and traditional material she sings, whilst coloured and inimitably inflected, is still quite a high percentage. Those composers one most clamours to hear her sing, Gounod, Puccini and Verdi amongst them, are represented here, or at least the first two, but rather tantalizingly.

One must therefore be grateful for what we have. The Gounod features her coloratura in effulgent and imperious form and her histrionic powers are exemplified by the Chant Hindou of Bemberg, an inconsequential squib by a composer-factotum-lover but still a splendid platform for Melba. I have to admit that Auld Lang Syne is rendered incomprehensible but I enjoyed the soft singing of the refrain even as I struggled and failed to make out a single word. A vocal trio joins Melba for Scott-Gatty’s simple Good Night. Gwladys Roberts and Ernest Pike were recording stalwarts but a young singer called Peter Dawson, who’d started to record the previous year, joined them. Melba apparently informed her fellow Australian that the city of his birth, Adelaide, was "a town of pubs and prostitutes" which doubtless rendered him uncharacteristically mute. The song is very lightweight stuff, rather music hall, but technically speaking there are some well-sustained top notes and good breath control at the end. Albert Fransella joins Melba for Bishop’s Lo, Here the Gentle Lark and what a pleasure to listen to his rustic flute as it swoops and darts; Melba starts rather cautiously but soon fans out to dramatic effect.

The aria from Gounod’s Faust starts with a decisively maintained and sustained trill, some portamenti followed by an immediate lightening of the voice – marvelously effective. Though her French is undeniably unidiomatic the expressive adjuncts she employs here are splendid – and the extended subsequent trills fearsome in the extreme. Even in that old warhorse Tosti’s Goodbye she rises to a declamatory peak at the apex of the song. When it comes to the Bach/Gounod Ave Maria a rather sub-standard copy has been used with persistent scuffing; a pity because whilst it’s hardly a stellar performance one could then have heard rather more clearly the already acoustically distant W(illiam) H(enry) Squire, cello soloist, chamber player, composer, dedicatee of Fauré’s Sicilienne and obbligatist to contraltos, mezzos and sopranos the length and breadth of the Empire.

Lovers of the incongruous will turn to the Ladies Chorus in Bemberg’s L’Amour est pur comme la flamme – perhaps not their finest hour. But there is a certain insouciant hauteur to Melba’s rendition of Bizet’s Pastorale; her control of line and held notes are marvelous and so is the Lalo that concludes the disc.

Ward Marston has done a good job with the copies, with the exception of the side with which he was working on Ave Maria, which should have been substituted. Notes by Peter Dempsey are once again to the point and informative. Under Marston’s biographical details is an uncorrected line of text that has somehow escaped proof reading. "Ward said he’ll send his notes by Fri am." It seems he did because this is a fine disc.

Jonathan Woolf


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