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Iím a renaissance-collector; I can appreciate the best parts of José Curaís Verismo-Recital and I think that Renée Fleming live sounds even more beautiful than on her CD "The beautiful voice". But I wouldnít be without Fernando De Luciaís Neapolitan Songs or Fiorello Giraudís opera-recordings. I admit that the first twenty years of the past century was truly a golden age of singing with opera and the operatic way of singing dominating all music making. But Iím happy to have lived through the new golden age of singing, roughly the period between 1950 and 1975 when most operatic recordings set standards that are nowadays so seldom attained. Therefore I belong to that clan of the collectorís tribe that purchases all and everything in vocal history that catches my fancy. Still I and several friends-collectors buy fewer historical records than we could and would if the supply was better. Why donít we? Because "the policies of record companies never fail to amaze me" as Harold D. Rosenthal used to write. Indeed:

- often the transfers of shellac and tape to CD lack quality: example the José Luccioni-CD on Malibran where worn 78s were used or the Gianni Poggi-CD on Bongiovanni where an old MP (clicks included) was used instead of the original Decca-tape

- often the quality of transfers is very good but it is enormously frustrating to have to choose between Pearl, Romophone, Marston and Nimbus (as was) offering us issues which largely duplicate the same material. Therefore one buys one CD while regretfully leaving aside other issues as they offer only a few additions.

- those many duplicates result in recording companies neglecting fine artists who remain just names unless one has a splendid collection of shellac or a friend willing to copy these records for you on cassette or CD.

- prices are often inflated for re-issues of CDs which carry no copyrights

- sometimes one is only interested in the performance of one or two historical singers in a complete recording

- LPs are irregularly transferred . Often only a few arias are added while a few others have disappeared (a pitiful specialty of Preiser): anyway not enough new stuff to buy the CD.

The results are always the same. One is interested in a re-issue, studies the sleeve-note and puts it again on the racks. As a consequence small companies sell not enough CDs and go out of business. They lose and we lose too. October 2001 was a dramatic month. On the 24th the website of The Gramophone mentioned that the well-known firm Nimbus was out of business. On Sunday the 28th the New York Times told us that the bosses at Tower wanted to throw out most small niche recording-firms (often specializing in historical vocal CDs). The same day an e-mail warned us that one of these firms (Marston) had halved its prices on most of its stock in a desperate move to survive.

May I therefore offer some solutions which I think would benefit us all: producers, dealers and customers.

  1. A producer of CDs devoted to shellac-singers should rely heavily on two sources before launching a new historical CD: LP-CD-catalogues and eventually a few mammoth-collections with trusted collectors. He/she should have a detailed knowledge of all re-issues on the market of a particular singer. Gone are the days when people had to order records at their local retailer. Someone interested in collecting nowadays often combines his hobby with tourism (family included) all over the world. The big cities of the world thrive on that mass-tourism and every collector starts by looking at the yellow pages before leaving his hotel. Moreover the internet and the CD-R have changed collecting as well. Dotcom-firms deliver almost all records you desire. Some interesting issues are only available on the net. Therefore it doesnít take years anymore to get your favourites home in one or another way.
  2. Conclusion: Producers should avoid duplicating, should carefully look at the complete output of a singer and preferably transfer on CD those records which never made it onto CD or even LP. Not every collector threw away his LPs - the Preiser-and Rubini-products were flawless most of the time. Moreover how often do collectors play their records in their entirety? Sometimes years go by before a record is played a second time. Therefore lots of collectors keep their best LPs, only purchasing a CD when there is brand-new stuff on it.

    Do producers keep this in mind? Not at all. Herewith a few examples. How many potential customers are there on earth for Madame Sembrich? Still Romophone, Minerva, Nimbus, Vocal Archives and Pearl thought it necessary to transfer her shellac on CD. And these firms are somewhat surprised they donít sell enough. Symposium brought us Burzio which most of us could buy on Club 99 at bargain prices at Tower. Preiser gave us the complete Lotte Schöne, a feat which Pearl thought should be repeated. The same firm gave us a fine CD of Antonio Cortis, a singer already in the catalogue of the Catalan firm Aria. These are all recent examples and I could fill pages with them.

  3. Producers should definitely ask collectors which singers are under-represented or even not represented on the market and go for these. Take fine pre-war tenors like Giuseppe Krismer, Franco Tafuro, Enrico Di Mazzei: a lot of 78s, no CDs, indeed not even an LP. Take that other beautiful tenor: Costa Milona. Only one LP, a small part of his formidable recorded output. Take Enzo De Muro Lomanto: 269 records and the acclaimed great singer of Canzone Napoletane and Italian songs. Only his opera-arias and literally a handful of songs are on CD. Two hundred 78s are waiting for transfer. Not even the truly great have escaped this fate. Though there are dozens of LPs and CDs with Richard Tauberís unique voice, a close study of his huge number of records reveals that several CDs are still possible with untransferred recordings. The same goes for that paragon of basses Paul Robeson. These are reasonably easy CDs to produce. Some collectors specialize in Pathés and that unique recording system has led to an appalling neglect of fine singers which didnít find their way to LP, let alone CD.
  4. Strange though it may sound, the same method can be used for singers of the LP-era, often with amazingly big names. "Testament" happily transferred a lot of interesting LPs to CDs but they limited themselves to the original recitals not looking for the outlandish recordings or to bringing together different pieces. Take Franco Corelli. The first four Franco Corelli recordings on 78 were never transferred (Italian songs like Lolita) - not on LP, not on CD. Some of his output on 45s like the Werther-duo with his wife Loretta is still unavailable. Only a few people know of his ĎAmore e grilloí from Butterfly. Even a 1962 song on a 45 was never transferred. Then there are arias of a never-published 1968 session gathering dust in the vaults of EMI. If a producer succeeds in clearing the copyright hurdles and securing the permissions of the artists themselves, he has a sure winner.
  5. Collectors will already have noticed a marked preference for tenor examples. This is no coincidence. I remember too well asking that well-known London dealer Michael G Thomas, in his Lymington Road days, if such and such a sopranoís 78s existed on LP. He simply replied: "No and anyway itís no use as they all buy only tenors on Oasi, Club 99 etc. This is somewhat painful to say but it remains a fact of recording life that during the acoustic days only male voices recorded really well. Therefore producers should concentrate on male singers and indeed somewhat neglect worthy female singers whose artistry takes a lot more knowledge and patience to appreciate. Iím happy enough to know a few collectors below 45 years of age. They donít buy acoustic ladies. I donít say that no soprano should get her CD but not in the numbers as is the custom now.
  6. Another sure proof method of losing money (or of earning less than hoped for) is to produce transfers of complete operas of the 78 days. We all know the limitations (of tempi, cuts, sound) artists had to cope with in those days. Still for whatever reason (musical political correctness? indolence?) producers continue to pour out complete sets which are difficult to sell, even in budget versions. Is there anybody in the collector community younger than fifty who learned his operatic trade with the Pertile-Aida, the Gigli-Tosca, the Pampanini-Butterfly or to exaggerate a little the Destinn-Carmen or the Paoli-Pagliacci? Iím fifty-eight, very middle-aged, and I started with Di Stefano-Callas, Del Monaco-Tebaldi and Björling-De los Angeles. With stereo I went to Bergonzi-Price and Corelli-a different soprano each time. And then it was time for Gigli after which I went down the time (not the quality) ladder towards Merli and Pertile but I did it to hear the singers, not to learn the opera. Moreover the less than pristine sound in orchestral and chorus parts on these recordings make listening not a pleasurable experience. Therefore and with the advent of the 78 minute CD Iíve never understood why producers didnít delete the parts where prominent vocalists are absent. The vocal highlights of most bread-and-butter operas go easily on one CD and one CD, even a budget CD, is more easily sold than an old Bohème on two CDs often completed with those stupid Ďfillersí or Ďbonusesí which duplicate arias you already have in your collection. The PC has changed the world. On his well-known website Mike Richter offers us a CD-ROM for the price of a budget-CD. It containsÖ30 complete historical opera sets
  7. Is there anything more hateful than a collection of ten to twenty artists on a CD? And another one with more or less the same singers? And still another one? Symposium specialises in this kind of nonsense and if we have enough patience they all turn up in the bargain section of Tower. That means up to now because with its new policy those records will never turn up at Tower any more, even at full price. But is this the fault of this chain? Producers shouldnít produce vocal bouquets but put the records of a single singer on one CD. Leave the bouquets to the annual surprise CD of vocal societies like the one in New York or the London Society with itís Record Collector-affiliate.

Jan Neckers

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