For a certain kind of music lover, the only possible Christmas present this year will be "The Complete Caruso" (RCA 60495-2-RG, 12 CDs with booklet). A major advantage of this one over other Caruso collections is stated in its full title: "The Complete Caruso -- Including the Original Victor Talking Machine Co. Master Recordings." RCA's archives contain the prime source material for nearly all of this collection. The set also has the 32 recordings Caruso made from April 1902 to April 1904, before becoming an exclusive Victor artist, for Zonophone, Pathe and (one of my favorite corporate titles) the Gramophone & Typewriter Co.
An excellent companion to this set, for those who want to be truly lavish, is the new biography published by Amadeus Press: "Enrico Caruso: My Father and My Family," by the late Enrico Caruso Jr. and Andrew Farkas -- a detailed, well-illustrated, intimate, affectionate but clear-eyed account that also has definitive data on his recordings, concerts and operatic appearances.
The RCA set is also superbly documented in a 242-page booklet, and with the discs and commentary in hand it is easy to compare his three recordings of "Vesti la giubba," his four of "Una furtiva lagrima," his six of "Celeste Aida" and his five of the Quartet from "Rigoletto" (including a previously unreleased fragment of the tenor part) to see how his voice changed through the years, how his art became more subtle and how he worked to avoid settling into routine interpretations.
Caruso (1873-1921) is the most famous singer in the history of opera partly through happenstance; his timbre was ideally suited to the primitive recording equipment of his time. But the cumulative evidence of these discs also shows that he had one of history's great voices and used it with intelligence and sensitivity. In digital sound, that evidence is clearer than ever. It is clearer too in the RCA sound than in the excellent "Prima Voce" series issued on Nimbus Records. The Nimbus sound on two Caruso CDs (NI 7803 and 7809) has a mellowness, a freedom from extraneous noise and a sense of ambiance that are very attractive. But a close comparison with the RCA processing of the same recordings shows that these effects are achieved at the expense of considerable detail and presence. On Nimbus, Caruso is a voice singing at some distance in a room with fine acoustics; on RCA, he is a vivid presence, only a few feet away from your ear. The Nimbus collections have their own value, however, and offer a tasteful selection for those who feel no need of a complete set.
Voices From the Past Also well worth hearing in the "Prima Voce" series are the volumes dedicated to Claudia Muzio, a leading Verdi-Puccini soprano of the 1930s (NI 7814), and Tito Schipa (NI 7813), one of the best tenors of the century. Schipa's was a long career (he sang in public at age 73), and his styles ranged from bel canto to verismo. But his light, graceful tenor with its smoky-sweet timbre seemed particularly at home in the older style. A very inclusive view of Schipa's art, including 18th-century material and Puccini, can be heard on EMI CDH 7 632002. A couple of cuts are duplicated with Nimbus, but Schipa is worth at least two CDs in any vocal collection. One duplication is only apparent: On EMI, Schipa sings the great love duet from "Don Pasquale" with Toti dal Monte; on Nimbus, his partner is Amelita Galli-Curci. If I had to settle for one, it would be EMI, but this is fortunately not necessary.
Another EMI reissue of unique flavor is "Conchita Supervia: Opera Arias" (CDH 7 63499 2). In a too-short career (she died at 40), the Spanish mezzo-soprano was noted for her stylish singing of Rossini (she recaptured Rosina in "The Barber of Seville" from the coloratura sopranos), but also for her extraordinarily vivid Carmen. Both sides of her talent are well represented in this set, including half an hour of "Carmen."
Swiss tenor Hugues Cuenod was 70 years old when he recorded 17 songs of Debussy (including the Baudelaire and Mallarme cycles) for Nimbus in 1972. Remastered on CD (NI 5213, with French texts), the set represents a triumph of intelligence over time; the voice is still fresh, clear and used subtly with an exquisite sense of style.
On recordings from the Preiser label, the sound has not been cleaned up as carefully as on Nimbus, RCA and EMI, but after a few minutes the ear learns to filter out most of the surface noise and focus on the voices. For those interested in German singing, the effort is worthwhile; Preiser (based in Vienna) has restored to circulation a lot of material otherwise unavailable -- usually sung in German whether the composer is Wagner, Verdi, Mozart or Gounod. With these reservations, I recommend two landmark sets: "The Art of Frida Leider" (89301, three CDs) and "Leo Slezak" (89020). Both were noted Wagnerians, but Preiser shows other dimensions of their art as well: Slezak is very impressive in Verdi and other music of the early 19th century recorded between 1905 and 1908, and Leider's heroic voice adapts well to Mozart, Beethoven, Verdi and even Puccini's "Tosca" ("Nur der Schoenheit," for example, which is really "Vissi d'arte").
Most of the names in the RCA Vocal Series are familiar from the Metropolitan Opera rosters of a generation or two ago, with generally high quality in performance and sound. I find three irresistible. A Lauritz Melchior collection (7914-2-RG) includes duets from "Tristan" and "Lohengrin" with Kirsten Flagstad; solos from "Lohengrin," "Parsifal" and "Siegfried"; miscellaneous songs; and five Schumann duets beautifully sung with Lotte Lehmann. Licia Albanese (60384-2-RG) sings stylishly and with verve in arias of Puccini and the lighter Verdi soprano roles, but what makes this disc unique is a brilliant 1951 performance of the Letter Scene from "Eugene Onegin" with Leopold Stokowski conducting. Albanese never sang "Onegin" on stage, but she interprets it with great musical and dramatic precision, and she learned Russian to do it right. You have to admire that kind of dedication. Zinka Milanov (60074-2-RG) sings the "Song to the Moon" from Dvorak's "Rusalka" in Czech and two other selections in Serbian (her native language); elsewhere she sounds like an Italian soprano (which she wasn't) born to sing the big Verdi roles (which she was).
Voices From the Present The next generation's counterpart to Milanov was Leontyne Price, who has retired from opera but is still impressively active as a recitalist. Her art is vividly documented in dozens of RCA recordings. Operatically, she was identified primarily with Verdi, but her art extended from Mozart to Richard Strauss. Her "Strauss Arias" collection (60398-2-RG), from recordings made between 1965 and 1973, shows her as a Marschallin, Ariadne and even Salome of silver tone and great power. This disc, unlike all those listed above except Nimbus/Cuenod, has complete texts and translations. I suspect that Price insisted, and she should be commended for this.
One of the legendary voices of the mid-19th century, soprano Pauline Viardot-Garcia, was also an accomplished songwriter -- a salon composer rather than an innovator, but a skilled melodist with a good eye for singable texts and a knack for giving each little piece a distinctive flavor. In a collection of her songs (CPO 999-044-2, with texts and translations), Swiss musicologist and soprano Karin Ott captures the flavor of the period, brings pleasant additions to the recorded repertoire and produces some impressive coloratura singing. Besides her original works, the disc includes Viardot-Garcia's adaptations, for her own use, of music by Chopin, Jomelli and Gluck.
"L'Heure exquise" ("The Exquisite Hour") is the completely apt title of a collection of French songs by Reynaldo Hahn, Georges Bizet and Emmanuel Chabrier performed with perfectly poised style and technique by soprano Rachel Yakar and pianist Claude Lavoix (Virgin VC 7 91089-2, with texts and translations). This repertoire is relatively unfamiliar in the United States but amply rewards the effort involved in getting to know it. This disc makes that effort easy and delightful.
Even less familiar than French on our concert and recital stages is the Aztec language Nahuatl. The only piece of music I know that uses that language is "Cantos Aztecas" by Lalo Schifrin, an Argentine-born composer who studied with Messiaen in Paris and has worked extensively in this country as a jazz arranger and film composer. The "Cantos Aztecas" are set to poems by the 12th-century Aztec prince Nexahuacoyotl, we are informed in the notes of the first recording (ProArte CDD 494, with text and translation). The music sounds a little bit like Carl Orff writing a Hollywood soundtrack, and it is powerfully performed by Placido Domingo with Shifrin conducting the Mexico Philharmonic Orchestra and chorus.