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The Radford Voice - A Panel Discussion

To discuss the Radford voice we “assembled” a trio of experts: Dennis Wicks, an outstanding operatic bass at Covent Garden, then at the English National Opera and frequently abroad (until he retired in 1991), Wayne Turner and Graham Oakes, basses familiar in these pages for writing about their calling. None are more qualified to undertake this task. The panel is “chaired” by the author.

CAH: Robert Radford is generally regarded as the finest English bass during the first quarter of the previous century, as well as a most prolific recording artist. Would you all agree on his status?  

DW: It is so difficult to judge like with like as regards old and modern recordings, but I suppose one can compare anything or anybody with their contemporaries. In his prime, I’d say Radford was as good as anyone around.

WT: At its best the Radford voice was one of the finest of its type in the vocal world (not just in England). As an artist, he was supreme in his wide versatility, always capturing a mood or a style and adapting this to a flexible voice of wide range. His voice was one of high compass: high F of a baritone range, down to a sonorous low C, and in between, the timbre is that of a true bass of great weight, The outstanding quality was the great authority with which he invested everything he sang.

CAH: That authority is something I’ve always found especially memorable. His descent to the lowest notes is so even, so controlled, with never a hint of effort or strain. But what about the type of voice? Was he really a basso profondo as writers so often describe him today?

DW: The voice was somewhat like mine, but perhaps with a better top. He was neither basso cantante nor basso profondo, but somewhere in the middle, very dark, not black, but not light.

GO: I agree. The voice did not fit comfortably into either of the two usual categories. It was of a mixed timbre, tinged with elements of both cantante and profondo. I would add that his top had an almost lyric edge particularly in his younger days.

WT: In fact, Radford’s daughter Winifred quoted her father’s own comment to me: “No, I’m not a profondo but I can get down to most of their notes; if you want to hear a profondo, then listen to Norman Allin or Mr. Jetsam!” (By ‘Mr. Jetsam’ he meant, of course, Malcolm McEachern.)

CAH: Well, that certainly seems quite conclusive, especially with Radford’s own view to support this. That baritonal capability seems to put him out of the running as a basso profondo but it may explain why he could undertake to record Renato’s ‘Eri tu’ (1914) and Don Carlo in the duet ‘In this solemn hour’ from Forza with tenor Walter Hyde (1921), the latter remaining unpublished. I’ve always admired the stately, patrician quality of his sound. Were there other considerations?

DW: Radford’s voice did in lots of ways allow a wide repertoire, giving him the chance to sing cantante roles such as the Gounod Mefisto, and Boris, Ramfis and Fiesco, ‘black’ roles like Sarastro, Hunding, Hagen, etc. but also the character parts like Ochs, Bartolo, perhaps Osmin.

GO: The lower register was heavy and dark and inclined to be guttural. I’ve no doubt he would be classified as a profondo when compared to today’s rather lighter bass voices.

CAH: Aha! That must be the reason present day writers persist in referring to him as a basso profondo!

WT: Not only that. There’s the ease with which he descends to the lower regions. That has led some writers to call him a basso profondo, not realizing that this is the rarest of all voices and is not solely dependant on low notes but on overall timbre as well. With Radford that ‘black’ central core of, say Allin or (Gottlob) Frick, is just not there.

DW: There’s another point. If one was a good actor then there was a tremendously big rep’ open to one. In my case, I was lucky to be thought good at acting any given role so I was given a wide variety of parts. I know this is so because they had to get several different singers in to undertake the roles I had once sung. So it was for Radford.

CAH: He made his first record early in 1904, his last in 1927. Was his sound consistent throughout this period?

DW; He suffered from bad health for quite a lot of his career and although his earlier recordings are excellent, his later ones, i.e. after about 1918, seem to have not quite the same authority as once.

WT: Radford’s prime, vocally speaking, lasted from 1904 (such an early maturity for a bass voice!) to about 1918; there is a sad decline after that date in his recordings. Both the LP and a more recent CD are comprised in the main of post-1918 discs and many collectors will, regrettably, judge him from these. Compare the ‘woody’ sound of the Falstaff Drinking Song (1924) with the 78 of Abt’s ‘Still is the Night’ (1907), where every note has ringing clarity and rich quality.

CAH: There is that same beauty in Loder’s ‘The Diver’ (1909). So, sometimes a baritone, other times a basso, and a deep one at that; no wonder he’s hard to categorise!

Note: Sadly both Dennis Wicks and Wayne Turner passed away before they could read their views.  

Note: This 'panel discussion' was submitted to The Record Collector but was not used in the Radford article in Vol. 54. No. 3, September 2009

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