About this Recording
8.558131-34 - Caruso: Enrico Caruso - A Life in Words and Music (TIMSON)
English 

Enrico Caruso (1873–1921)

 

Enrico Caruso’s reputation, since his death, has remained undiminished. This is due almost wholly to the recorded legacy he left behind. He was unquestionably the first great star of the record industry, and through the wonders of digital technology he shines even more brightly today. When Caruso stepped into Fred Gaisberg’s hastily improvised studio in a Milan hotel room, stood before the tin horn suspended from the ceiling, and sang his first aria ‘Questa o quella’ with full voice, his attitude was unequivocal: the gramophone was a toy, a novelty that could never replace a real, live performance. Gaisberg tells us that Caruso was rather impatient to finish the session and have his lunch, oblivious that he was creating a recording legend. Gaisberg knew better: he had selected Caruso as the guinea-pig for a new invention—the flat disc as opposed to the cylinder—because the dynamic range of his voice was perfect for the primitive mechanics of the recording equipment: a vibrating needle cutting a groove in wax, to capture and reproduce a sound as close as possible to the real thing. It is a problem with these early acoustic recordings that not every artist’s voice is suited to the medium. Male singers tend to fare better than females. The high soprano of Geraldine Farrar for instance, heard here in a duet with Caruso from La Bohème, sounds thin and poorly produced, yet we know she was a great star of the Metropolitan Opera in New York. This is largely explained by the restricted dynamic range of these early recordings and of course a lack of technique on the artists’ part, as they were still coming to terms with this new and demanding medium in the early 1900s. Caruso’s first recordings are therefore all the more remarkable. Despite the mistakes (a wrong entry or an audible clearing of the throat) the power and brilliance of that youthful voice comes thundering through to the present-day listener.

Caruso was quick to see the potential of the new medium. The Gaisberg discs were released in London to coincide with his debut at Covent Garden—an early example of ‘marketing’ which meant that the discs sold like hot cakes, and continued to do so for the rest of Caruso’s life and beyond. Once established in America, Caruso made a deal with the Victor recording company, giving them exclusive rights to record his voice for the next 25 years, in return for a royalty on every disc sold. It was to prove a lucrative addition to his income: he was earning two million dollars from the royalties by the end of his life. The Victor company had produced a cheap phonograph, the Victrola, which encouraged the general public to buy the discs in their thousands. Every budding tenor listened and learnt. Richard Tauber confessed: ‘I would listen to those records for hours and hours—the finest lessons any young singer could have.’

Caruso became the first million-seller, and his acceptance of this new medium gave it respectability and encouraged other artists such as Melba and Chaliapin to enter the studios. The fledgling industry’s debt to Caruso was recognised by Compton Mackenzie who wrote in the Gramophone magazine:

When violin solos sounded like blue-bottles, overtures like badly played mouth organs, chamber music like amorous cats, brass bands like runaway steamrollers and pianos like an old woman clicking her false teeth, Caruso’s voice proclaimed a millennium and preserved our faith.

In total Caruso recorded nearly 500 records, yet he was always very careful to ensure that the quality was maintained. According to his agreement with Victor, he had the final say as to whether a recording was good enough to be released. Any that were unacceptable were destroyed. If his voice was feeling ‘heavy’ on a recording day, he was allowed to cancel. Yet despite this careful attention, Caruso was often critical of his recordings from an artistic point of view. He seriously believed that only one or two were acceptable as a true expression of his talent. He would proudly play his record collection to his friends, but on one occasion, when he substituted a record of an unknown tenor for one of his own, no one noticed the difference. It was a salutary lesson for him.

It is a pity that Caruso did not live into the electric recording age. All his recordings are acoustic, recorded without the aid of a microphone, the technology barely progressing from his first in 1902 to his last in 1920. Later, Victor transferred many of his best recordings electrically and re-released them on its famous Red Seal series of 78s. In fact, Caruso’s recordings have never been out of the catalogue, such is the demand. His 78s became LPs, his LPs CDs. The high sound quality now available through digital recording brings him vividly back to life and his developing technique is easily discernible as we follow the recordings chronologically in Naxos Historical’s Complete Caruso series. It was Caruso himself who once said prophetically that his recordings would be his biography.


David Timson


Close the window