Melba procrastinated for some time before agreeing
to a series of test recordings in March 1904, to be made in the privacy
of her London drawing room in Great Cumberland Place. She wasn’t actually
to sign a contract until 11th May and naturally attached
a series of stringent provisos and conditions; a very high royalty payment
and her discs to be sold for a guinea each, a strategic shilling higher
than those of Tamagno. The huge cost indicates the luxury status of
such things in the first decade of the twentieth century. Published
in July the series – not everything was issued – has remained a source
of vibrant debate ever since occasioning the kind of argument perhaps
singularly to be located in collectors of Vocal Art.
Melba had come to prominence in the late 1880s having
only recently embarked on a course of serious and systematic study,
famously at the Ecole Marchesi, and when these recordings were made
she was 43. Given the rather primitive nature of the recording venue
there are few obvious audible weaknesses in Melba’s singing. Her colouration
is splendid, voice production easy and fluent, her trill often of evenness
and magnificence; a certain flatness of pitch at the top of her range
has occasionally been cited but contemporary evidence is that her intonation
was impeccable; her legato is of an elevated distinction, even judged
by the standards of her dazzling contemporaries.
The Engineer’s introduction and cry of "Go!"
is one rather charming feature of the earlier discs as are the final
muttered comments at the end of each side – one of them the displeased
Melba herself in Handel’s Sweet Bird announcing, after her mistake,
that "Now we’ll have to do it again". Landon Ronald is a frequent
accompanist, sounding stiff and not yet warmed up in Tosti’s Mattinata.
Melba is uneven and it could hardly be otherwise. Good in Bemberg’s
slight Nymphes et sylvains (he was a camp follower and lover
of hers) she is coarse and wild in Follie! Sempre libera
from Traviata – which unsurprisingly wasn’t issued on 78. Del ciel
from Lucia di Lammermoor however is quite splendid, fluent, mobile
and eviscerating in its effect. The Thomas Hamlet scene is substantially
intact – one feature that is so valuable about Melba’s discs is that
she was personally acquainted with many of the composers, Gounod, Thomas,
Verdi, Delibes, Saint-Saëns and Massenet among them – and we can
hear those distinctive adjuncts of her technique that must have been
heard by those who wrote for her or directed her. Her trills are superb,
her portamenti a fascinating performance detail, the simplicity of her
impersonation judicious and deeply impressive, her expressivity exceptional.
Her legato in Rigoletto overcomes the inadequate accompaniment,
a rum-di-dum little band and as she grows in confidence she essays a
tremendous Sempre libera. Pleasurable simplicity was certainly
not alien to her – D’Hardelot’s Three Green Bonnets is a charmer
though she doesn’t sound comfortable in Porgi amor from the Marriage
of Figaro. Back to form immediately she is unambiguously superb in Hahn’s
Si mes vers with ravishing control of line. How important as
well to hear an extract from one of her greatest triumphs, La Bohème.
This is the first of Naxos’ projected four volume series
devoted to Melba’s art. With distinguished transfers and fine notes
by Peter Dempsey this is a noteworthy start. This company goes from
strength to strength.