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Pietro MASCAGNI (1863-1945)
Cavalleria Rusticana (1889)
May Blyth (soprano) – Santuzza
Marjorie parry (mezzo) – Lola
Justine Griffiths (contralto) – Lucia
Heddle Nash (tenor) – Turiddu
Harold Williams (baritone) – Alfio
Chorus and Orchestra of the British National Opera Company/Aylmer Buesst
Recorded 1927
Ruggero LEONCAVALLO (1858-1919)

Pagliacci (1892)
Miriam Licette (soprano) – Nedda/Columbine
Frank Mullings (tenor) – Canio/Punchinello
Harold Williams (baritone) – Tonio/Taddeo
Heddle Nash (tenor) – Peppe/Harlequin
Dennis Noble (baritone) - Silvio
Chorus and Orchestra of the British
National Opera Company/Eugene Goossens
Recorded 1927
DIVINE ART 27805 [50.10 + 62.19]

Following hard on the heels of their very welcome Elijah, also reviewed by me, comes Divine Art’s restoration of the 1927 British National Opera Company recordings of "Cav and Pag" sung naturally enough in English in the occasionally wincing words of Frederic E Weatherly. The BNOC rose from the ashes of Beecham’s Opera Company, which had collapsed in 1920. It fulfilled an important role in British operatic life during the relatively short time it survived bringing opera to the provinces and giving a good launch-pad for a number of important singers and conductors. It also attracted some eminent figures to perform in its ranks – Melba, Teyte, Hislop and Edward Johnson among them.

Recorded complete in 1927 with a first class cast, this is a most worthwhile resurrection though its appeal will be specialist. Genuine Italianate voices are, with the exception of Nash, in short supply and the ethos is, inevitably given the drawing room tendencies of the libretto, very English indeed. Though the orchestra has been praised in Cavalleria rusticana I have to say that the strings sound very thin and few and employ a continuous portamento that is unusually obtrusive and pervasive even for the time. The anonymous London orchestra for the 1930 Elijah was immeasurably superior. That said some of the woodwind playing is characterful and impressive and the conductor, the Australian Aylmer Buesst keeps things cracking on.
[By the way, is anyone going to revive the Violin Concerto that Victor Buesst (b. 1885?) wrote for Anatole Melzak? Was Victor the brother of Aylmer? I have a violin and piano reduction of the score which was played by Dan Godfrey in Bournemouth.]

Nash is ardent, Schipa-like in his beauty of tone, though even he, a master of perfect diction and with a strong Italian training, is confounded by the translation in the Siciliana. There’s a credible and creditable choral balance. May Blyth is a successful Sanuzza, with an attractive command if just a touch pinched at the top. Marjorie Parry, Barbirolli’s first wife, is an immediately attractive though light-ish mezzo and manages to bring a certain element of flightiness to her role. The great Elijah Harold Williams is on hand as Alfio. His diction was probably second only to Nash’s amongst the cast members but he was less of a stage animal. His forte was oratorio and also ballads and he can sound rather wooden here - which is a pity especially as he doesn’t seem in his best voice (he’s better in Pag and better still in 1927’s Beecham Messiah – Williams was very busy in the recording studios that year). The little known Justine Griffiths fares well as Lucia; she’s rare on record and little biographical information has seemingly survived. Above all however it’s Nash who rises to the top by virtue of his virility, his elegant and passionate declamation and his sheer beauty of tone. His peak is, in English, Mother, that wine burns me.

As with the companion opera the full English text is printed but there are some blips with the tracking (for example No.7), which is not properly synchronized with the text.

I Pagliacci saw Eugene Goossens II (also known as Senior to distinguish him from the rest of the Goossens dynasty) assuming the conductorial role. He has the same small body of slithery strings at his disposal and the same characterful winds. Williams is in better voice as Tonio but the focus falls inevitably on the histrionic figure of the Frank Mullings. He was by all accounts a great actor-singer and Beecham for one was almost in awe of him, an almost unparalleled position for the singer-disdaining Baronet. The records however leave a very mixed impression; certainly of great personality and penetration, but the voice itself is utilitarian and indeed decidedly un-beautiful. In his notes Andrew Rose tries to mount a defence of Mullings by claiming that his records "more than most" suffer from being transferred at the wrong speed – but this surely affects anyone from that period and the evidence of his recordings is that the voice was not an instrument of any appreciable beauty at all. The vocal production as such is frankly is all over the place even if his self-belief is palpable, the stage magnetism implied, though to be taken on trust.

Miriam Licette, a singer I greatly admire, is an excellent but very English Nedda. Nash appears once more as Peppe but there’s much less for him to do and, for once, he seems to lack his usual tonal allure. It’s really only in the upper register that he becomes the characteristic Nash – in his exchanges with Licette’s Columbine – and displays something of his tenore di grazia. The young Dennis Noble makes a good showing as Silvio.

As for technical matters there is some blasting along the way and Williams suffers most from this recording problem. I have neither of these sets on 78 but did dig out an extract from the Leoncavallo on Pearl. Pristine Art has managed to reduce surface noise to a bare minimum and retain a reasonable sense of openness. But listening to the no-nonsense Pearl I did rather miss that degree of treble openness at the top and would have welcomed a touch of surface noise to get it. A personal choice naturally, and many allergic to shellac crackle will enjoy the rather more constricted sound here. Good cast lists and a libretto complete another welcome restoration from Pristine Audio. Why not Nash and Licette in Wallace’s Maritana next?

Jonathan Woolf



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