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Ye Olde English Singers, Their Records And A Canadian Perspective
by Charles A. Hooey  

This article was written several years ago for Canadian readership but the anticipated publisher expressed no interest, saying the subject was foreign to his readers. And so it has lain dormant until now. 

As a veteran collector of recordings, I've seen, or rather, heard it all. In my own make-up I've been blessed(?) by a relentless curiosity which has driven me to explore all forms of music over the last forty or so years. This search led me inevitably to opera, that perfect embodiment of all aspects of creative art. After absorbing hundreds of complete operas and concerts via broadcasts and records, I can report a genuine love affair with the voices of Tebaldi, Price, Bjoerling, Simionato, Siepi and countless others. However, my restive nature demanded something different and so early in the 1990s I happened upon English singers who recorded in the earliest days.

These artists, when they recorded opera, they inevitably sang in English, as they did with delicious oratorio arias but, in the main, they recorded period songs and ballads that portrayed every aspect of the human condition. And yet most are often summarily dismissed by British critics as being of low quality and unworthy of attention. For someone like myself who is interested in "the voice," these reservations mattered little; after a surfeit of High C's, my sensibilities were ready to be soothed by that finely moulded phrase, that filament of silvery tone, the smooth, rolling low bass note, and so on.

I found persons with collections of English 78s who were willing to share their riches via cassette copies. As far as I knew then or could determine the vast majority of this material was never available in Canada, either in the original 78 rpm or any other format. As my collection grew, the number of singers who had left sound mementos and the mind-boggling quantity of individual discs involved, I found amazing. Fuelling this enterprise, of course, was the prospect of coming across other outstanding singers whose records I needed to hear.

I'd like to touch on a few of my amazing "discoveries" made in this search. To begin, how many I wonder have heard of that charming lyric soprano, Caroline Hatchard? Some readers may recall my article about Caroline early in 2001. Born in Portsmouth in 1883, she emerged from the Royal Academy of Music in 1905 and soon was singing supporting roles at Covent Garden. This was considered quite a feat at the time as any kind of role at Covent Garden was usually reserved for foreign artists. She moved on to play a key role in Sir Thomas Beecham's opera seasons in London and on tour in 1910-13. She was a pioneer in introducing two Richard Strauss operas to English audiences, appearing as Sophia in an English version of Der Rosenkavalier and as Walburg, the wife of the Potter, Ortolf in the first Der Feuersnot, or in English, "Fire Famine." A bit later, Caroline followed the familiar path for English sopranos of her time, becoming an acclaimed oratorio and concert artist. She had an aversion to making records but did leave 20 in total that happily represent most facets of her art: opera, oratorio, musicals and ballads. Her recordings of Tosti's "Goodbye" and Handel's "Sweet Bird" are examples of world-class quality singing. Her records provide flashes of her voice with its surpassing incandescent beauty.

A tenor I discovered offered special pleasures. Hubert Eisdell’s way with songs seemed to recreate a quieter time; he was no bleater or shouter, using his slender instrument to present truly enjoyable musical experiences. His recorded legacy is huge, and happily his voice can be heard on the Pearl CD re-issue of Beecham's Messiah in 1929. It was late in his career and English reviewers sometimes trash his singing. He can also be enjoyed on individual CDs issued by Cheyne and Greenhorn. I also gave readers of this journal in 2003 a word picture in “A Voice to Cherish” together with a comment on his records. It was interesting to discover that Eisdell had a Canadian connection, having taught at Lakefield College School in southern Ontario from 1936 to 1947. He died in Lakefield in 1948 and is buried there.

Friendship with the great Canadian bass, Don Garrard, served to heighten my appreciation for his vocal category, so naturally when I encountered the outstanding voice of Robert Radford, I knew I was hearing one of the truly great bassos. As the scion of low note practitioners of his day, he was able to leave a major recording legacy, 400 discs overall, most with genuine musical qualities. Take Schubert's "Erlkönig," for instance, which he recorded three times in English as "The Erl King," two made acoustically in 1911 and 1924 and a third, electrically in 1926. The interpretations are similar, serious but under-stated, the different characters ably defined, with each version curdling my blood every time. At least three CDs have been issued but amongst many cassettes I have, my favorite is a terrific sampling from the collection of John Walker in Stockport. Here he is represented primarily by records made prior to his vocal crisis of 1918, the earliest being “Tomorrow will be Friday” from 1906. Thus he is heard during his vocal prime. There is variety too with solos, duets, trios and quartets with stunning instances of him plumbing the depths.

Another esteemed English bass, Norman Allin, recorded Schubert’s Erlkonig between 1926 and 1928 but at a slightly faster tempo as he searched for drama, but I am afraid all he found is melodrama. Some years ago, a major American bass in concert here in Winnipeg gave a stentorian and forceful account in German. It will be no surprise that my vote goes to the Radford versions.

As befits an island nation, sea songs have always held special appeal. Most deal with an awful fate, deep, deep, deep in the depths of the sea. Radford's "Rocked in the Cradle of the Deep", "The Mighty Deep" and "The Diver" allow him to descend to a stunning low D for awesome effect. Truly the stuff of vocal legend!

I do not wish to denigrate Norman Allin as many of his recordings provide an excellent view of a major bass singing music he loves, although the late Wayne Turner said at one point that Allin was disappointed with much of his recorded output. Though his sea songs are quite wonderful, I really don't have a favorite.

Harry Dearth was a high basso who possessed an uncanny resemblance to Royal Windsor males of his time. Active in opera, oratorio and concerts, Dearth made more than 225 recordings, mostly fascinating ballads. In 1916, he recorded "The Canadian Guns," a stirring tribute to the skill and audacity of Canadian gunnery units then helping enormously along the front. His recording of "Leanin'" is the perfect embodiment of soulful indolence, and justly famous. He would often sing it on request in pubs he frequented in his later years as demon drink gradually took over his being. He died in 1933.

Amongst the many fine baritones, I soon began to favor the burnished tones of Dennis Noble, an underrated singer who performed primarily in his own country between the World Wars. Records and broadcasts reveal a mellifluous, articulate singer who makes a success of every aria or song he sings. A favorite is "The Carnival" which he sings with confident zest, so obviously enjoying the lilting rhythm opportunities the song provides. "At Santa Barbara" is a most amusing and masterly phrased account of a chance encounter "on the Prado" with an alluring but incommunicative femme, who finally responds...although I cannot approve of the commodity (cigarette smoking) that ultimately aroused her attention!

Baritones of high range represent a prominent British tradition. One of these, Charles Mott, was chosen by Elgar to sing the lead baritone in his "The Fringes of the Fleet" at its premiere on 11th June 1917 and at subsequent live concerts including a recording. An engaging 39 year old, his next assignment was a trip to France in defense of his country, but sadly he encountered a bullet or piece of shrapnel that bore his name. "The Sands o' Dee" record is truly chilling.

Britain has also been known for its deep contralto voices, with undoubtedly the foremost being Clara Butt, a larger-than-life personage who did so much to boost English morale with her War Support Concerts during the First War that King George V made her a Dame of the Empire in 1920. She made many records, some of which are available on Pearl CDs.

While Clara occupies a special plane, another mezzo-soprano, Louise Kirkby Lunn, has become one of my favorites, for her obvious femininity, tonal richness, evenness of production, and heartfelt feeling in both opera and song. She sang first at Covent Garden in 1896 as Siegrune in Die Walküre and returned off and on thereafter until 1922. Amongst her notable roles was Dalila in the first staged Samson et Dalila in 1909. She first appeared at the Metropolitan Opera in the 1902-03 season and returned for two seasons from 1906-08, singing Amneris to Caruso's Radames in Aida and Wagnerian roles. She left recorded mementos of her Dalila, Carmen and Eboli, a few oratorio arias, and a wealth of songs. I particularly enjoy her recording of "Plaisir d"amour" - it has all the necessary qualities: pace, sadness and warmth to achieve maximum effect.

Another remarkable lady who packed a deep vocal wallop in those days was Edna Thornton, a prolific recording artist herself. Her records reveal attributes similar to those of Kirkby Lunn, although her voice emerges from a leaner base. Even so, her records invariably produce approval.

Heddle Nash is generally regarded as the greatest English tenor during the years between the wars. Every one of his recordings offers distinct listening pleasure and his pre-eminence is recognized by the issuance of several CDs, with the inevitable duplication of content.  

His qualities are nowhere more evident than in the final act of La Bohème with Dora Labbette and Beecham conducting. This is magical opera! Labbette is devastatingly tragic - tears will surely flow whenever a serious opera lover tunes in. The recording stems from that famous incident in 1935 when Beecham disguised Dora as "Lisa Perli" aiding her to "qualify" as Mimi at Covent Garden. An exercise in how to defeat prejudice! In fact, most of those involved were in on the hoax and allowed it to continue as Dora obviously possessed the real goods and deserved a place on the Covent Garden stage.

Dora/Lisa had a gorgeous voice and a figure to match. She loved her "Tommy" and a son was produced, but at war's outbreak Beecham accepted a conducting post in the United States and that was that. Dora Labbette was such a wonderful singer she should be remembered for her special gift but alas, this often is lost in the furor of the Beecham involvement.

Another forgotten singer of the greatest renown, the epitome of Victorian tenors, was John Harrison whose recording activity was truly remarkable. For a time his discs rivaled in sales those of Caruso. In addition to many exceptional solos, Harrison participated in recordings of duets with Radford and in concerted efforts with soprano Maud Perceval Allen, contraltos Thornton and Alice Lakin and others.

John Coates was a fine tenor with a most individual and distinctive but effective style. He was the Hoffmann in the Tales of Hoffmann that Beecham offered in 1914 when Caroline Hatchard sang Olympia. Caroline's recording of the Doll Song from this session was available on long playing discs until recently.

Near contemporary Walter Hyde was a tenor who didn’t specialize in blazing high notes; instead he offered well-rounded musical experiences every time out. His recording career began in 1904 with a series of cylinders including HMS Pinafore for Sterling Cylinders, made late in 1907. For Odeon he would record this opera again later that year along with The Mikado. In the end he left 179 recordings, one of his best being “Winterstürme” from Die Walküre, sung in English.

Another English tenor of French extraction, Maurice d’Oisly, became a Beecham favorite after he sang Froh in the famed English language Ring at Covent Garden in 1908. From that moment on, he was the maestro’s reliable tenor during his season at the Garden in 1910 and throughout the following decade. In 1919 Maurice married New Zealand soprano Rosina Buckman and she too had a fabulous career. For more on these artists, see “Sing to me, Maurice dear” in FTR 2002.

There are many other fascinating characters with stories just bursting to be told. Foster Richardson, for instance, was a bass with a sturdy sound but also a rather nasal production; he recorded profusely. Baritone Roy Henderson, an excellent singer who made many records gained further fame as a teacher of Kathleen Ferrier. Soprano Miriam Licette, a beautiful artist and splendid singer who sang Marguerite in the complete Beecham Faust recording with Nash and Robert Easton. Alas, there are many who remain complete mysteries at present although the search for information about their lives and careers goes on.

There is also a reason for regret...One of the greatest of English singers who lived into the recording era chose not to preserve her gorgeous voice for posterity. Born in Sunderland on 22nd November 1877, contralto Muriel Foster arrived just at the moment Elgar desperately needed a champion to achieve success for his great oratorios. Muriel Foster was that force. After a mighty reaction erupted after she sang Elgar’s Sea Pictures on 15th March 1900 at a St. James Pops Concert, C.V. Stanford wrote to Elgar: “She has not the whopping voice of Clara Butt but she has more poetry and is musical to her fingertips.” This comment is typical of a mountain of words praising her.

Actually, on 23rd June 1904 she did enter the Gramophone Company studios to record the following:
5425 a) Each rose; b) Happy song (del Riego)
5426 Melisande in the wood (Goetze)
5427 A June morning
5428 Each rose

None were released.

Since writing the above, the author has written extensively about artists he mentions: Caroline Hatchard, Miriam Licette, Charles Mott and Dennis Noble along with Agnes Nicholls, Walter Hyde, Muriel Foster and Robert Radford and has stories about Edna Thornton, Maurice d’Oisly and Dora Labette awaiting publication by The Record Collector. In addition Dennis Foreman has written in RC fascinating accounts of the lives and careers of Clara Butt and John Coates while the late Wayne Turner contributed, based on personal association, excellent articles on Norman Allin, Scott Joynt, Robert Easton and Norman Lumsden. Larry Lustig, RC editor, has reported on Heddle Nash, as has Graham Oakes about Harry Dearth.

Several artists are now represented on CD: Louise Kirkby Lunn (Greenhorn 0034), Robert Radford (Cheyne CHE 44383; Amphion 170 & 191, Greenhorn 0017), Dennis Noble (Dutton 7017 nla; Greenhorn 0027; Cheyne CHE 44459), Edna Thornton (Cheyne CHE 44399), John Harrison (Cheyne CHE 44411; Greenhorn 0017), Walter Hyde (Cheyne CHE 44420), Hubert Eisdell (Cheyne CHE 44421; Greenhorn 0004 & 0049), Harry Dearth (Greenhorn GH 0078); Cheyne CHE 44380), Norman Allin (Cheyne CHE 44398; Greenhorn 0005), John Coates (Cheyne CHE 44402-3), Clara Butt (Pearl 0086; Greenhorn 0002, 0014 & 0043) Dora Labbette (Greenhorn 0004 & 0044), Foster Richardson (Greenhorn 0065), Heddle Nash (Pearl 9179, 9319, 9475; ASV 5227; Dutton 7012 & 7031; Greenhorn 0023)and Roy Henderson (Dutton 7038).

Splendid British sopranos awaiting CD releases include Caroline Hatchard, Miriam Licette, Maud Perceval Allen and Eleanor Jones-Hudson. Caroline can presently be heard on a Record Collector CD - TRC 18 singing an aria from Haydn’s Creation and The Beautiful Land of Nod by Liza Lehmann. 

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