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CARUSO The early recordings [74 mins] NIMBUS NI 7900


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This double celebratory CD marks the 100th release in the acclaimed Prima Voce series of early opera singers. I have reason to be grateful to Nimbus for having invited me 10 years ago to the launch at Covent Garden Opera House, since when I have collected these precious reminders of a bygone age. The first releases included Great Singers 1909-1938 (NI 7801) and Divas 1906-1935 (NI 7802). Most of the CDs are individual artist-led.

The launch party was unforgettable, not least because I had struggled up the stairs to the Crush Bar, much too soon during convalescence from an operation! We had a demonstration of Nimbus's unique "natural ambisonic" transfer method, which began by playing short passages of mint copies of selected 78 rpm shellacs with fibre needles, repeatedly re-sharpening them as necessary. (I remember well clipping the triangular sort every few minutes, and sanding the round ones.) The sound is fed through a huge horn gramophone, then painstakingly re-recorded with modern equipment, a combination of the latest with the earliest in sound reproduction. Background noise is reduced to a comfortable level, but without distorting the vocal qualities of the singers, and the ear quickly adapts.

John Steane, who knows more than most, believes this method brings him face to face with Caruso more consistently as he sounded. The voice is young and fresh in these 1902 - 1910 recordings, with which "Caruso made the gramophone and the gramophone made Caruso". For further reading on this crucial episode, I recommend Peter Martland's lavishly illustrated Since Records Began: EMI The first 100 years (Batsford) which covers Fred Gaisberg's epoch making recordings of Caruso and is entertaining and informative throughout. Its launch (1997) at the top of Canary Wharf was equally memorable an occasion.

Singer and recording machine had met in a Milan hotel, when he was principal tenor at La Scala in the world premiere of Franchetti's Germania under Toscanini. Arias from that nearly forgotten opera, recorded on that day, are perpetuated in this collection of 27 tracks, many of them from favourite Italian operas.

The additional (free) sampler has a roster of the greatest at their finest on record, and I can imagine the heated debate which must have accompanied their selection! Melba, Tetrazzini, Chaliapin, Tauber, Lehmann, de Luca, Muzio and Schipa are all to be heard on these 19 generous tracks. Lots of rare archive photos, biographical introductions, synopses of all the arias and full details of the original recordings are included.

My only regret is the omission of actual texts and translations, which would give an additional dimension to listening appreciation. So many of the arias are repeated throughout the series that a book or CD Rom with full words would be invaluable; a project for the next 100 Prima Voce CDs? If copyright problems could be overcome, maybe this material might be put on line for readers of Music on the Web?


Peter Grahame Woolf


Peter Grahame Woolf

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