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.