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Nellie Melba; The Hayes and London Recordings 1921-26

Chanson hindoue
Landon RONALD (1873-1938)

Away on the hills there runs a stream
Down in the forest
Thurlow LIEURANCE (1878-1963)

By the Waters of Minnetonka

Annie Laurie
Henry BISHOP (1786-1855)

Home Sweet Home
Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)

Otello -Piangea cantando
Otello – Ave Maria
Giacomo PUCCINI (1858-1924)

La Bohème – Entrate…c’è Rodolfo?; Donde lieta uscì; Addio dolce svegliare alla mattina; Gavotta, Minuetto; Sono andata?; Io Musetta…Oh come è bello e morbido
Address by Lord Stanley of Alderley
Dame Nellie Melba’s Farewell Speech
Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)

La traviata – Dita alla giovine *+
Herman BEMBERG (1859-1931)

Un ange est venu *+
Josef SZULC (1875-1956)

Clair de lune Op.83 No.1 +

Swing low, sweet chariot +
Nellie Melba (soprano - and piano on two tracks) with
An orchestra conducted by Landon Ronald
Royal Opera House Orchestra/Vincenzo Bellezza
John Brownlee (baritone) *
Harold Craxton (piano) +
Landon Ronald (piano)
Recorded 1921-26
NAXOS HISTORICAL 8.110780 [69.37]

This is the final volume of Naxos’s Melba series. At its heart is the famous series of discs recorded at her Covent Garden Farewell performance in June 1926, a brilliant example of the imperious preservation of her voice. It also includes her farewell speech from the stage.

But we start earlier. She was in variable voice when she made the first of the commercial recordings on the disc, in Hayes, in 1921. Nearing sixty the material she was encouraged to essay was light in the extreme and tinged with the nostalgia of the pre-War years. Only the first matrix, the Chant hindoue, has any staying power as a piece and she began the session with that habitual coolness, with perfectly filed intonation, and the corollary of considerable security which lent part of her recorded repertoire so glacial an air. Of the six songs only half were issued at the time on 78 and we can guess that some awkward runs in Landon Ronald’s Away on the hills there runs a stream precluded release. Hearing the regal Melba in By the Waters of Minnetonka makes for, how shall we put this, entertainingly doubtful listening.

But the core is the Farewell performance, and here she sings Verdi and Puccini with, inter alia, two of her compatriots and protégées Browning Mummery and John Brownlee. One side, Donde lieta uscì from La Bohème was actually released at the time, on HMV DB 943 but the remainder had to wait for LP issues in, I think, the mid-1970s. Given the nature of the recording, the slightly, inevitably, recessed stage perspective and the exigencies of the set-up the live performance emerges with laudable clarity and immediacy. It’s unfortunate that the Amen of her Otello Ave Maria cuts abruptly at the end of the side, because she manages to cast a palpable spell over the auditorium – the voice still in remarkable estate, vowels characteristically very open, consonants sharp, vibrato not, even at this stage in her career, widening to any appreciable degree. Browning Mummery impresses most of the other supporting singers, his tenor full of clarity and heft. We get Melba’s Speech, as well as the much less well-known speech of Lord Stanley of Alderley (local colour, worth hearing the once). And then to her very last sides, made a few months later in the Small Queen’s Hall in London when she was joined by Brownlee and by pianist Harold Craxton. The sound is good, forward, in the Verdi but Brownlee sounds a mite buttoned up; surprisingly in the Bemberg, the immediately succeeding matrix, the sound is much less immediate. It is appropriate that she ended with Bemberg, erstwhile lover, factotum and camp follower, and with the Burleigh-arranged Swing low, sweet chariot – it shows the variousness of Melba. Her importance is not lessened by the relative triviality of the repertoire she essays here. Fine transfers.

Jonathan Woolf

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