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ClassicsOnline Home » CARUSO, Enrico: Complete Recordings, Vol. 1 (1902-1903)
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Recordings, Volume 1
speed with which events moved in the early years of the recording industry was
nothing short of phenomenal. Emile Berliner's flat disc gramophone (soon to
displace the earlier cylinder design of the phonograph) had little more than
novelty value in 1896; yet within five years the Gramophone Company had crossed
the Atlantic, established itself in London and begun travelling around Europe
in search of artists to record.
early years of the new venture, a key element was the figure of Fred Gaisberg,
whose name was to become almost synonymous with those of His Master's Voice and
EMI. He had realised immediately that the future of the gramophone depended on
recording singers of the highest stature, as well as the collection of curiosities
and cafe musicians who quickly surrounded them wherever they went. As he later
explained, on the early recording tours (Europe in 1899, Russia in 1900 and
1901) they faced an uphill task.
important to remember what a primitive little affair the gramophone was in 1900...
Whenever we approached the great artists, they just laughed at us and replied
that the gramophone was only a toy.'
therefore a momentous event when a rising young star in the world of Italian opera,
Enrico Caruso, was persuaded to make records. In March 1902, a month before
Gaisberg heard him sing at La Scala, the tenor had caused a sensation at the
premiere of Franchetti's Germania,
and he was booked to make his Covent Garden
debut opposite Nellie Melba in May of that year. Gaisberg sent a message asking
what fee he would require for recording ten songs.
next day Maestro Cottone... returned with a proposition. Caruso would sing ten
songs for £100, all to be recorded in one afternoon. ... To us in those days
these were staggering terms, but I transmitted them to London with a strong recommendation,
feeling all the time how inadequate were words in telegraphic form to describe
the merits of the case. A cabled reply came back quickly: fee exorbitant forbid
you to record.'
company had every reason to be thankful to Gaisberg for ignoring their
instructions. Not only did the session quickly turn in a huge profit, but even
before the records went on sale the mere knowledge that Caruso had made them
was enough to persuade other big names to sign contracts, including Antonio Scotti
and Emma calve. In a single afternoon on the third floor of a Milan hotel, Caruso had made recording
of this series contains almost all the recordings that Caruso made before
signing an exclusive contract with the Victor Talking Machine Company in 1904.
(The other five Milan titles are in Volume II.) At the
first session, it is clear, the overriding priority was to get those ten
numbers on disc. Perfection was neither sought nor obtained. Caruso makes a
false start on Dai campi, dai prati, and we hear him clearing his throat
after the first verse of Questa o quella. He loses his nerve with the
final high B flat of Celeste Aida and sings it falsetto, while the
opening of E lucevan le stelle is nothing short of a shambles. Caruso
comes in much too early (at the wrong pitch) and only finally synchronizes
himself properly with the piano at the end of the recitative section. But for
the Gramophone and Typewriter Company, as it was now called, these were trivial
matters compared with the triumph of capturing that glorious voice on disc. As
other singers lined up to follow Caruso's example, at last the company had a
product of undeniable quality to offer the public - a product, moreover, that
could only be enjoyed by buying one of its own gramophones.
as it was clear that the recordings were a commercial success, an immediate
priority was to tempt Caruso back in front of the horn, The Gramophone Company's
Milan agent, Alfred Michelis, who had first urged Gaisberg to hear Caruso in Germania,
was instructed to approach the composer Umberto Giordano about recording the
aria Amor ti vieta from his opera Fedora. In a letter of 14th November 1902 Michelis included the following
translation of Giordano's response. 'I consent with pleasure to comply with
your demand to make my friend Caruso sing my Fedora, presiding myself at
the pianoforte.' As Michelis pointed out in the same letter, 'Besides, this
settles the question about Caruso singing for us again as he cannot possibly
refuse the request of the composer.'
singing Amor ti vieta Caruso asked the sum of 3,000 lire. As an
alternative he suggested 5,000 lire (about £170) for five songs, with the
concession that he would record again, for no fee, the defective Boito and
Verdi items from the original session. (As it turned out the second version of Celeste
Aida was even less satisfactory. Caruso solves the difficulty of the final
high note by the dubious expedient of bringing the piece to an abrupt close
before the end of the aria.) Three further selections were recorded the day
afterwards, so that in all ten new discs were issued. The following year, again
in Milan, Caruso recorded seven items for
the Anglo-Italian Commerce Company, including a new version of E lucevan le stelle.
first recording sessions of Caruso are of immense historical significance. For
most people in 1902 the gramophone was no more than a curiosity; few would have
staked money on its becoming a standard item of household furniture within
twenty years. With a little effort of imagination, we can imagine the feelings
of wonder that must have been aroused in countless listeners when they heard a
great singing voice reproduced so faithfully for the first time. For admirers
of Caruso the early discs have a special interest, giving us the voice while it
is not yet thirty years old and before its fame has reached around the world.
It has a lighter and sweeter sound than in the later recordings, more tenor,
less baritone. It floats easily, and there is a simple freshness, most evident
in the music of Caruso's own age – the verismo operas and the Neapolitan songs.
Already, though, the power and the fullness of tone are there in full measure,
and at climaxes the voice expands effortlessly to create that unmistakable
golden sound which still, through all the hiss and the clumsy piano playing,
continues to inspire and astonish.
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