About this Recording
8.110704 - CARUSO, Enrico: Complete Recordings, Vol. 2 (1903-1906)

Ernesto Caruso

Complete Recording, Volume 2


Caruso's first stage successes came in Italy, the country of his birth. It was there too, in Milan, that his recording career began in 1902, but it is with the United States, and in particular the Metropolitan Opera, that his name is inextricably linked. From his debut at the Met in 1903 to the end of his life, the November of each year saw him take up residence in New York for the winter season. Ambitious, energetic and intelligent, he soon developed a huge repertoire of operatic roles: astonishingly, during the five-month season of 1906-07, he performed on stage no fewer than sixty-eight times. New Yorkers loved him and were ecstatic over his singing, while the financial rewards for Caruso were enormous: in fact, this was a happy and successful arrangement for all sides. But the huge public interest that grew up around Caruso and his doings was not only due to his work in the opera house. Even more important in terms of public recognition was the long and mutually profitable relationship with the Victor Talking Machine Company, which made the voice of Caruso familiar to millions who never had the chance to hear him in the flesh.


The contract signed with Victor in 1904, although it included a yearly fee of $2,000 to ensure that Caruso's services belonged exclusively to them, explicitly made an exception for Victor's English associate, the Gramophone and Typewriter Company; but apart from the two G&T discs presented here Caruso never again recorded in Europe. He had no need to. Fred Gaisberg estimated that during his career the singer made close to five million dollars from sales of his records, a sum which translated into today's values is simply phenomenal. The 'exorbitant' fee of ?00 paid to Caruso by Gaisberg for his first recording session in Milan had turned out to be the smallest of small change.


Except for Recondita armonia, all the Victor recordings from 1904 are of arias which Caruso had already recorded in Milan. The decision to cover familiar ground again is understandable. The original recordings, priceless though they were, were made in haste and with little opportunity to look for suitable surroundings. More importantly, the singer himself had no experience of recording and could hardly have been feeling entirely at his ease. The improvement on the first American discs is very noticeable. Not only is the sound clearer on these versions, but Caruso shows greater assurance and a growing vocal mastery. No doubt a generally sanguine view of his own future would have played some part in this. With his career blossoming in New York and a five-year contract signed with Victor only four days earlier, Caruso must have been feeling enormously confident More significantly, though, he was quite simply a better singer than he had been two years before.


Caruso was always ready to admit that early on in his career he had a voice which was 'short', with a tendency to crack on high notes. Matters had improved greatly from 1897 onwards after he met the soprano Ada Giachetti, who was later to become the mother of his two sons. 'Under her instruction and wise guidance Caruso evolved from a chorister into a true opera singer... Ada Giachetti! Caruso's great fortune and misfortune!' Such was later to be the verdict of Emil Ledner, Caruso's European manager. But even in 1902 there was still some way to go, and in Volume I of this series Caruso can be heard resorting to a very ill-matching falsetto at the close of both Celeste Aida and La donna e mobile. The first Victor recordings show how his technique had improved even in the space of two years, and by 1906 (the date of the last recordings on this CD) the difference was quite remarkable. We are inclined to think of a singer's technique as the ability to achieve spectacular effects - the trumpet-like final note at the top of the register or the exquisite high pianissimo But Caruso's development can be just as easily appreciated in Cielo e mar, a simple enough piece which imposes no particular demands on the singer. With the performance included on this CD, Caruso makes his own 1902 version (see Volume I, Naxos 8.110703) appear pedestrian and dull, not because there was anything particularly wrong with it but because he has now learnt the magic art of making singing sound completely effortless and natural. No longer constrained by his own vocal limitations, Caruso can now afford to be entirely at the service of the music. It is a colossal step forward.


And at last the orchestra has arrived in the recording studio. However inadequately its sound is reproduced, however much the improvised wind orchestrations conjure up for us images of a Mississippi paddle steamer, we should not forget the inspiration it must have provided to the singer. The musical support available at a recording session now bore at least some resemblance to what he was used to in the opera house. It is surely no coincidence that these 1906 discs are the first of the truly great Caruso recordings. Of the five items on this CD from that session, four were never recorded again by Caruso, and even M'appari was on sale for eleven years before a second version was made. It is a remarkable indication of how pleased both he and Victor must have been with the results of the day's work.


The beauty of the voice, with its wonderful combination of sweetness and power, was no doubt the first thing that drew the public into the shops to buy these records, but no less admirable is the integrity of the performances. It speaks volumes for Caruso's artistry that almost a century later nothing in his manner of singing strikes a false note. If we listen to Gigli's records today, the marvel of the voice (a more perfect instrument even than Caruso's) can never reconcile us to the tastelessness and self-indulgence of the style. But with Caruso, once we are past the barrier of the poor recording quality, no more allowances need to be made His renditions of Che gelida manina or Salut, demeure chaste et pure would not seem out of place if performed on the stage today. The phrasing is simple and unforced, the emphasis is on balance and proportion rather than milking each moment for its effect. These recordings are, and will remain for each new generation of singers, a lesson in the manners and repertoire of opera's grand century.


Hugh Griffith


Close the window