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Nellie Melba - The Complete American Recordings: Vol. 3
1. Édouard LALO (1823 – 1892) Le Roi d’Ys Puisqu’on ne peut fléchir ... Vainement, ma bien aimée (Aubade)
2. Giacomo PUCCINI (1858 – 1924) Tosca Vissi d’arte
3. Giuseppe VERDI (1813 – 1901) Otello Piangea cantando nell’erma landa (Willow Song);
4. Ave Maria, piena di grazia
5. Francesco Paolo TOSTI (1846 – 1916) Good-bye
6. Landon RONALD (1873 – 1938) O Lovely NIght
7. WETZGER By the Brook (Idyll for flute and piano, with John Lemmoné, flute)
8. Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756 – 1791) Il re pastore L’amerò sarò costante (Cadenza by Camille Saint-Saëns with Jan Kubelik, piano)
9. Charles GOUNOD (1818 – 1893)/Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 – 1750) Ave Maris (with Jan Kubelik, violin)
10. Liza LEHMANN (1862 – 1918) Magdalen at Michael’s Gate
11. Claude DEBUSSY (1862 – 1918) Mandoline;
12. Romance, L. 43
13. Gustave CHARPENTIER (1860 – 1956) Louise Depuis le jour
14. Depuis le jour (unpubl.)
15. Stephen FOSTER (1826 – 1864) Old Folks at Home
16. Maude Valérie WHITE (1855 – 1937) John Anderson, My Jo
17. TRAD.SCOTTISH Comin’ Thro’ the Rye
18. Hermann BEMBERG (1859 – 1931) Les anges pleurent; (unpubl.)
19. Chant vénitien (unpubl.)
20. TRAD.SCOTTISH (arr. Liza LEHMANN) Annie Laurie
21. Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841 – 1904) Songs My Mother Taught Me (from Gypsy Melodies, Op. 55, No. 4)
22. Songs My Mother Taught Me (from Gypsy Melodies, Op. 55, No. 4) (unpubl.)
Nellie Melba (soprano) all except track 7, anonymous orchestra/Walter B Rogers (tracks 1 – 6, 13, 15, 20, 21); Gabriel Lapierre (piano)(tracks 8 – 12, 14, 16 – 19); Frank St Leger (piano)(tr 22) Recorded in Victor’s Camden studios on August 25th 1910 (tracks 1 – 4), August 26th 1910 (tracks 5 & 6), November 7th 1910 (tr 7), October 2nd 1913 (tracks 8 – 10), October 3rd 1913 (tracks 11 – 16), October 4th 1913 (tracks 17 – 19), January 12th 1916 (tracks 20 – 22)
NAXOS 8.110336 [75:46]

I have to admit it: I have never liked Melba. My first contact with her voice was in the early 1970s when I bought an LP with McCormack, Tetrazzini and Melba; the first two I at once took to my heart but Melba gave me goose-pimples. Whenever I have come across the Australian diva, whether it be the aforementioned record or the odd tracks I have acquired accidentally on compilation records, I have had the same uneasy feeling. She scoops up to the notes (if she is lucky to hit them – very often she is well under), she has that hooting, even howling sound, that I have sometimes likened to a fog-horn in the Channel. She has sloppy, careless phrasing – but she has a good trill ... which doesn’t compensate for all these defects. All these years I have thought that it must be my fault – her fame, being one of the most venerated women of her age, can’t possibly rest solely on Peach Melba, which she probably didn’t ‘compose’ either. So when the latest list with new releases appeared I begged for this disc to see if I might be able to reassess her ...

The first track, the Aubade from Le Roi d’Ys, which also was on that old LP, was just as disheartening as before (see above). Yes, "good trill" I wrote again. Let’s hope for Tosca, then. But no, Tosca was never her cup of tea, and Vissi d’arte was lifeless and hooty until the very end where she revealed some feeling but marred it through still more under-the-note singing. Not wanting to give in this early I hardened myself and listened to the two Otello arias. Her lowest register turned out to be more attractive than the top, I thought, and the Ave Maria had some fine phrasing, but greatness? Nope! All right, she had been singing for more than 25 years and was 49 when she recorded this. Her greatness was probably to be found before the advent of the gramophone, I thought, while she hooted along through Tosti’s Good-bye, wishing to hear Schipa or Gigli instead. But then, on track 6, I suddenly heard a new, different voice: Landon Ronald’s O Lovely Night revealed a more vibrant voice, more beautiful, closer to pitch, a greater warmth and none of the fog-horn sound.

After a short rest, I could enjoy Wetzger’s By the Brook, well played by her regular concert partner and manager John Lemmoné. Whether Melba is the pianist is another matter. It seems unlikely that she should have travelled to the studios in Camden just to set down a piano part.

After an interval of three years we find her in the company of one of the greatest instrumentalists of the period, Czech-born violinist Jan Kubelik, father of conductor Rafael Kubelik, in two tracks, Mozart’s L’amerò sarò costante and Bach/Gounod’s Ave Maria. In the Mozart aria Melba has her squally moments but her trill is good and she blends well with Kubelik in the cadenza. The primitive recording can’t reproduce the violin tone very convincingly; it’s thin and wiry but obviously he was a sensitive player and his portamento style, out of fashion today, is something one gets used to in the long violin solo in Ave Maria. Melba creeps in very discreetly at the end of his solo, sounding as if an emanation of the violin. Apart from some under-the-note singing this is another example of the crystalline tones she could produce at her best.

A handful of French songs also show her as a restrained and careful interpreter. Gabriel Lapierre seems to be a stylish accompanist. Of the two versions of Depuis le jour from Louise, the unpublished take with piano finds her more comfortable and the end of the aria has real magic. Foster’s Old Folks at Home has a great deal of charm while Comin’ Thro’ the Rye is chopped up and over-emphatic.

In the three takes from January 1916, when she was already 55, it is interesting to note the purity of tone and the much better intonation compared to her efforts six years earlier.

After this traversal of 21 tracks with the ageing Melba – am I a reformed sinner, having finally realized her greatness? Well, not completely. On some of the tracks, especially those from 1910, she is still awful to my ears, but I am happy to have had the opportunity to modify my opinion. There is enough evidence here to explain the impression she possibly gave in live performances. Melba addicts, who missed this disc in its first incarnation on Romophone, should grab the opportunity: Ward Marston’s transfers retain a healthy amount of background noise to give the voice as much bloom as possible, Peter Dempsey’s essay is excellent and at Naxos’s usual price even the non-addicted could give it a try. They may have the same positive experience as I had – but skip the first tracks!

There are some peaches of sopranos from this era I would still rather listen to, but Melba has now belatedly entered my list of respectable singers.

Göran Forsling



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