typically, “the legendary tenor”, and these are his “legendary” records’.
The words are John Steane’s in his typically personal and
perspective-building liner-notes. Being “legendary” himself
nowadays he immediately qualifies this verdict by stating
that they are ‘nothing of the kind’. The danger with myths
is that we tend to take quality for granted and listen uncritically.
On the other hand we may end up taking out the red pen and
becoming fault-finders to dissolve the myth. Steane dissolves
a couple of myths himself, concerning the historical importance
of these recordings. However, these, Caruso’s very first
recordings, are Great Recordings Of the Century with intrinsic
musical and interpretative value. I could end the review
here. It is a self-recommending issue. Buy it, listen and
But – and
there are buts – this sweeping advice is of little value
unless I clarify a few things. There are, I hope, two categories
of music-lover who read this review:-
who are already familiar with ‘legendary’ recordings: scratchy
and dimly recorded discs with narrow dynamics and frequency
range. These readers need no encouragement to get this
issue. In all probability they already have them. Some
may own the original shellacs and play them on an ancient
mechanical gramophone with a horn. Stop reading! You probably
know more about this than I do.
who are familiar with ‘modern’ recordings – some of them ‘legendary’.
They may be potential consumers of historical recordings
provided they are not scratchy and dimly recorded with
narrow dynamics and frequency range. What pleasure is there
in listening to inferior sound and unsophisticated singing?
I can sympathize with this attitude. I felt that way once
too. However my advice is: Give it a try. It takes some
time to adjust to this new sound-world. One has to learn.
I didn’t like red wine the first time I tasted it either.
If you are slightly curious: Go on reading!
first reaction to these recordings, about forty years ago,
was one of disappointment. The piano accompaniments – orchestras
were not yet in use for recordings – were clangy and wobbly
and lacked nuance. There was a disturbing background noise
- bacon-frying is my adopted name for it – and the tone of
the singer was undernourished. He seemed to shout at forte
there was a sameness to the readings that felt uninspired.
Gradually I got used to them, could disregard the accompaniments
and mentally filtered the bacon-frying. When that was done
I was able to concentrate on the singing. Step by step I
realized that here was a voice of exceptional quality. It
was darkish but considerably less so than it became during
his later career. Here he was around thirty and in early
bloom. The tone was even from top to bottom, rounded in a
way that is supposed to be typically Italian. He had a fast
vibrato that I only noticed, it wasn’t disturbing. His breath-control
was amazing and he could sing soft pianissimo tones that
sent shivers along the spine. That ability has always appealed
more to me than braying fortissimos – however impressive
those can be. Finally I also found that it wasn’t only great
singing I was treated to. This was a singer with insight
into the characters and who adjusted his singing to meet
have written this overview in the past tense but returning
to the recordings for this review I could establish that
my old judgements are valid in the present tense as well.
Let me give some comments to some of the arias and songs
to clarify what I mean.
first aria, from the nowadays little known Franchetti’s forgotten
, is not the track I would recommend
beginners to start with. The voice is healthy and strong
but he sings at an almost constant forte. In Questa o
he lightens the voice, however, and there is a
naughty swagger in his singing that mirrors the raucous nobleman’s
personality. Celeste Aida
is superb, built up from
a soft, loving opening via a heroic climax down to a ravishing
pianissimo final note. He sings with fine legato in the Manon
and Una furtive lagrima
is lyric and restrained. E
lucevan le stele
is another masterly interpretation,
marred by a mawkish gulp towards the end.
has glow and brilliance and the intensity of Vesti la giubba –
an inward, resigned opening of the preceding recitative – is
tangibly emotional, but controlled. Not all the songs are
as lovely as those heard in Tito Schipa’s best efforts.
, with it use of heavy rubato,
is glorious. It lends an extra patina of authenticity to
have the composer at the piano. The two final tracks are
technically noisy. Not everything is perfect, but too much
perfection can often result in dullness and nothing here
is dull. There are even a couple of false entries (tr.
8 and 18), but with the historical perspective this is
charming rather than embarrassing. There was no such thing
as editing and the producer was reluctant to spend time
and money on a second take when the singing was alright.
There is however a defect – if that’s the word – that I
have not yet come fully to terms with. Sometimes at forte
and in the upper register the voice loses quality, sounds
undernourished and flat, just when one wants it to expand
and assume that excitingly full and shining tone. I still
don’t know why but I believe that it has something to do
with the primitive recording technique. Certain frequencies
just didn’t register well and there were no equalizers.
It can be annoying but I like to think it isn’t Caruso
who is at fault.
transfers are excellent, all except two of the tracks (tr.
3 and 14) were digitally re-mastered in 2008, according to
EMI. The voice leaps out
of the speakers with amazing clarity and volume. On the downside,
the documentation in the booklet isn’t up to EMI’s previous
standards in this series. There are no recording dates, no
matrix numbers, no original catalogue numbers. All of this
was on the sleeve for the LP that used the same material
and which I bought almost forty years ago.
a quite different historic perspective it is astounding to
note that at the time of recording almost all the composers
represented were still alive and active. Two of them – besides
Leoncavallo also Cilea – accompanied Caruso. Franchetti’s Germania
premiered at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan on 11 March 1902,
conducted by Toscanini and with Caruso in the role of Federico
Loewe. The two extracts from the opera (tr. 1 and 7) were
recorded exactly a month later. The same year, on 6 November, Adriana
was first performed, also in Milan but at
Teatro Lirico with Caruso singing Maurizio. As early as 17
November 1898 at the same theatre, a 25-year-old Caruso had
with the composer Giordano conducting.
Though he didn’t take part in the premiere of Tosca
1900 that was also just a couple of years before his first
recording sessions. In other words: what we regard as ‘historical’ works
were absolutely fresh to Caruso. He had no tradition to fall
back on. He created the tradition. This is another reason
to hail these recordings as ‘legendary’.
converted? A last word to those still hesitant: Give it a
chance and the odds are good that you will be hooked. If
you are not: feel satisfied that you at least are the owner
of a disc with ‘the legendary tenor’ with his first and most ‘legendary
EMI Great Recording of the
Century review pages