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ClassicsOnline Home » GIGLI, Beniamino: Gigli Edition, Vol. 1: Milan Recordings (1918-1919)
By Robert Levine
Beniamino Gigli (c.1890-1975)
The Gigli Edition Vol. 1 • The Milan Recordings 1918-1919
For the golden-voiced Beniamino Gigli, 1918 was a golden
year. Just 28, he was engaged by Toscanini to join La Scala and he was
contracted by HMV to make his first recordings. In his Memoirs, Gigli vividly
describes how he came to make these first records. In 1917 Fred Gaisberg, head
of HMV in London and the man who discovered and recorded Caruso in 1902 against
his company’s wishes, had scouted the Italian ground with a view to setting up
recording facilities there. Carlo Sabajno, the conductor, had been made head of
the Italian venture.
Gigli was introduced to Sabajno by Mascagni and invited to
Sabajno’s office to listen to a record of Caruso singing ‘Com’è gentil’. Until
then Gigli had heard neither Caruso’s voice nor indeed any record. He listened
in awe and humility after which Sabajno asked Gigli to come to the studio and
try recording his voice. ‘What would you like to sing? This is just an
experiment.’ Not unnaturally the young tenor was excited. He chose Flammen’s
aria from Lodoletta, later to be included in the sessions. When Sabajno played
it to Gigli the following day, he found hearing his own voice strange. ‘What
was even stranger was the affinity of tone that I could plainly hear between
the record of mine and the Caruso … It left me, wondering. What had maestro
Sabajno wanted to imply by the juxtaposition?’
After the event Gaisberg was told that Gigli could be
described as the second Caruso ‘except that he has greater flexibility’.
Gaisberg was urged to sign up this remarkable talent, ‘a real lyric voice that
rings out all over the place giving one the impression of unlimited reserve’
and ‘shows extraordinary intelligence for a tenor’. Then Gigli met Gaisberg and
it was arranged that ten records should be made, mostly of arias from opera in which
Gigli had already appeared.
Gigli recorded for Italian HMV during 1918 and 1919. In 1920
he went to New York and started
recording for Victor from January 1921 until 1930, and then again in
1932 and in October 1951. For HMV he commenced sessions in 1931 and continued
every year until his retirement in 1955. On the 1918-19 discs we hear the Gigli
voice in its absolute prime, firm, sweet, flexible, clean in line with few of
the maddening if endearing traits that affected him in later years. Arguably,
and I would argue it, this was the most sheerly beautiful tenor voice in the
history of the gramophone, and probably the most natural too.
Gigli’s career had really taken off when he appeared as Enzo
in La Gioconda at Rovigo, also his triumphs in the following years in other
Italian cities in the part. The mellifluous timbre, the homogenous tone, the
fluid delivery, the enthusiastic attack all combine to make Gigli the ideal
Enzo. The very opening phrase of ‘Cielo e mar’ suggests infinity and open space
so lovely and mellow is the sound. In this and the other outpouring of love,
Gigli is the ardent lover to the life, an erotic charge running through the man
and voice. According to contemporary evidence, his was also a voice that was so
well produced that it easily reached the furthermost point of the house. By the
time the record was made Gigli’s high B flat was truly in place. Then in the
duet with Barnaba, ‘Enzo Grimaldo’, we hear another aspect of Gigli’s art: the
biting attack and eager accentuation of words, as at ‘O giubilo! O Laura!’, and
at ‘O Laura mia!’, phrases which also exhibit the ease of his high notes. Gigli
always had, particularly at the start of his career, the ability to increase
and decrease his tone at will without loss of colour. In the ‘Deh non tremar’
duet we hear to perfection the sonorous, rounded tone, the delicate use of
legato and portamento. Indeed these three extracts from Ponchielli’s work are a
kind of paradigm of Gigli’s style at its very best.
Gigli’s début in Tosca took place in Genoa on 19th January
1915. He then sang it in Palermo, Naples, Rome, Florence, Genoa again, Milan,
Monte Carlo in 1919 and then in Buenos Aires. His ‘Recondita armonia’ is
another open-hearted expression of ardour, the difficult phrases at the close
shrewdly managed. ‘E lucevan le stelle’, was to become an aria with which he
was closely associated. This early performance has all the pain and expression
without the vulgarities of later years. The aching nostalgia and honeyed tone
‘O dolci baci’ has been copied but never quite equalled by
Faust in Boito’s Mefistofele was a part he first undertook
at Palermo in 1915, and then sang all over the place until he appeared in it at
La Scala in 1918, Toscanini in the pit, just about the time he recorded these
extracts. The rôle was a great favourite of his (‘enthralled and stimulated by
its dramatic possibilities’) and one can hear why in the liquid, caressing tone
of ‘Dai campi’. In the duet ‘Se tu mi doni’ he is in even sweeter voice in the
opening phrases, and in spite of a rather horrid soprano, he excels himself in
‘Lontano, lontano’, so caressing is his wooing. ‘Giunto sul passo estremo’ once
more discloses the sheer beauty of Gigli’s voice at this period, also his subtle
management of the text.
In true verismo, such as Turiddu’s farewell from Cavalleria
rusticana, Gigli’s reading here is greatly to be preferred to his later ones.
It is less effusive and in it you catch the vulnerability and sense of remorse
that almost redeems Turiddu’s character. At the beginning one hears, as in no
other account I know, the sense that Turiddu is really a mummy’s boy.
In other Mascagni operas of this period, Gigli’s first
appearance in Iris was in Turin on 8th February 1917, followed by Lodoletta in
Livorno on 28th July 1917. In the elegiac ‘Apri la tua finestra’ from Iris he
sings with the utmost fluidity, and the smoothness of his portamento is a
delight. I doubt if this charming piece, Mascagni at his most beguiling, has
ever been better done.
Gigli’s first Rodolfo came in March 1919 at Monte Carlo, not
long before he recorded ‘O soave fanciulla’ with the estimable Maria Zamboni.
Gigli is at his most ringingly ardent, a totally committed poet, yet once again
there are those exquisite half-tones of which he alone is master. Seldom has
the burgeoning of young love in this scene been so fervently expounded. The
head-voice high C at the end almost makes one forgive the young tenor for
attempting that unwritten note.
Gigli had not attempted Faust when he recorded ‘Salve,
dimora’ and the Garden duet, but the young, sappy voice was already a joy in
the part, even if there is the occasional unwanted sob in both aria and duet.
And what Marguerite (again Zamboni) could resist the blandishments of such a
Gigli first assumed the role of Fernando in La favorita at
Naples in 1916 to enormous acclaim, One can hear just why in his account of
‘Spirto gentil’, to which he brings the ideally plaintive touch. The style is
elegant, the breath control faultless, the expressive line finely held. Even in
the outburst at the start of Act 4, the scene with Fernando’s beloved Leonora,
Gigli is comparatively restrained. The little Neapolitan song, O surdato
’nnamurato, done with charm and finesse, is a harbinger of so many later
recordings of the pleasing trifles which Gigli sang as well as anybody.
The present volume is the first in a series devoted to
Beniamino Gigli’s “singles” - his song and aria recordings not issued as part
of complete opera sets. The aim of the series is to include every Gigli
recording released at the time, as well as every published alternate take and,
wherever available, unpublished takes. The sides here are presented in the
order in which they were recorded with one exception: the conclusion of the
Faust duet, set down several matrix numbers after the first part, has been moved
ahead in sequence to present the scene without interruption.
Gigli’s HMV acoustics were not as well recorded as those he
made for Victor; indeed, his first few Camden sessions were devoted to remaking
HMV sides which had then only recently been brought out on the Victor label.
Nor were the Milan acoustics available on such consistently fine pressings as
their American counterparts. The best editions were those which survived into
(or were specially re-pressed in) the 1950s, such as the last two tracks on
this CD, transferred from laminated Voce del Padrone shellacs. Although a
number of collections were drawn upon in order to assemble the finest available
copies for this reissue, some wear remains audible on the more scarce releases.
Considerable care has been taken to pitch the records
properly, taking into account Gigli’s known transposition habits. The 1918
Milan sessions, spread over five weeks, were determined to have playback speeds
ranging from 76.4 to 78.5 rpm, while the 1919 recordings (most likely made
during the week ending December 5th, rather than all on a single day) were
recorded between 80.2 and 80.5 rpm. Gigli transposes Spirto gentil and Salve,
dimora down a semitone for his acoustic HMVs, although his 1931 electric
version of the latter aria would be sung at score pitch.
The selections on the current volume were originally issued
in 1998 as part of Romophone 82011-2 (“Beniamino Gigli - The Complete HMV
Recordings, 1918-32). In remastering my original transfers, I have tried to
remove some of the clicks and pops that remained (both manually via digital
editing and through the use of the CEDAR declicking module) and have made
adjustments to the equalization of each track.
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