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8.110262 - GIGLI, Beniamino: Gigli Edition, Vol. 1: Milan Recordings (1918-1919)

Beniamino Gigli (c

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 of

‘O dolci baci’ has been copied but never quite equalled by other tenors.


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 Faust?


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.


Alan Blyth


Producer’s Note


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.


Mark Obert-Thorn

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