Collection: Caruso: The complete electrical re-creations

COMPOSERS: Bizet,Leoncavallo,Meyerbeer,Puccini,Verdi
LABELS: Pearl GEMM
WORKS: Works by Verdi, Meyerbeer, Leoncavallo, Puccini, Bizet
PERFORMER: Enrico Caruso
CATALOGUE NO: CDS 9030 (2 discs)

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Singing your heart out into a recording horn can’t have been much fun, even for Enrico Caruso. However, in 1932 – a few years after the introduction of microphones – RCA brought the late-lamented ‘king of tenors’ back into the studio, granted him more space, a superior orchestra and the posthumous chance to ‘go electric’.

The results varied between excellent and laughable: 36 sides were cut, some of them allowing the magnificent voice ample breathing space, some not, and others being either out of sync with the original, or sounding merely like a relatively modern orchestra playing along with a very old 78. Still, Pearl’s set is a useful supplement to their ‘Complete Caruso’, and their documentation is admirable.

As it happens, one of Caruso’s greatest records – the Quartet from Rigoletto, with Galli-Curci, Perini and De Luca – also turns up in Romophone’s Galli-Curci collection. And even after 76 years, this illustrious foursome still sounds as if it’s singing outside your bedroom window: Ward Marston’s transfers prove beyond all reasonable doubt that the best way to treat old records is to keep them clean and leave them, warts, cartoon orchestras and all.

This Romophone ‘slimline’ two-CD presentation is superb, the disc timings generous and the singing (mainly arias and ensemble pieces), incomparably beautiful. If Galli-Curci’s brilliant and engaging voice triumphs over the passage of time so, surely, does the passionate, sweet-and-silvery vocalising of operatic superstar, restaurateur, Hollywood music coach and bon viveur, Nina Koshetz. Larger than life both in spirit and body, Koshetz was the stuff that romantic novels are made of.

Pearl’s Opal set includes a multitude of gems, not least being Chopin’s Tristesse, the traditional Yiddish Eili Eili and music by Rachmaninov (who was once Koshetz’s lover), Tchaikovsky, Grechaninov, etc. Heard directly after the theatrical emotionalism of Nina Koshetz, Kirsten Flagstad’s imperious declamations might seem rather cold, even formidable – appropriately, perhaps, given Flagstad’s preference for gods, heroes and heroines.

Her voice was a magnificent instrument; play her ‘Ho-jo-to-ho!’ (Die Walküre) and you encounter a strong, defiant warrior-in-arms. Play the 1908 Eily Mavourneen on my next disc and you hear, apparently, a virile heroic tenor. Or do you? Well, actually, you don’t: what you do hear is, according to reliable calculations, a 12-year-old girl who sounds like a virile, heroic tenor. Ruby Helder, or ‘The Girl Tenor’, was born in 1896 and died in Hollywood in 1940 and sounds like any other mildly accomplished Victorian/Edwardian balladeer.

Great she most certainly wasn’t, but her records are remarkable documents. As indeed are virtually any by that most princely of tenors, Jussi Björling. EMI’s new compilation sounds startlingly realistic and presents Björling at the very height of his powers. Nimbus do almost (but not quite) as well by Giacomo Lauri-Volpi, Mussolini’s favourite tenor and a trumpeting, aristocratic singer whose artistry and sense of line set new standards for his successors.

However, the most lyrical Italian tenor of the period was undoubtedly Tito Schipa, a sort of Latin John McCormack whose sensitivity to words and musical inflection are represented in this round-up by so-so transfers of broadcast recordings made between 1939 and 1959 in Germany and Holland, featuring duplicate versions of various songs. While Schipa was singing in Berlin, the world was on the brink of war and a great operatic era was drawing to a close.

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Margherita Perras was recording Mozart, Erna Berger was heard in duet with Gino Sinimberghi, and Lauritz Melchior, Frida Leider, Lotte Schöne and Alexander Kipnis were still fresh in the memory. Nimbus’s wide-ranging collection of clarion calls from the Berlin State Opera reminds us that, thanks to CD, we still have easy access to those treasured voices.