About this Recording
8.111101 - GIGLI, Beniamino: Gigli Edition, Vol. 12: London Recordings (1946-1947)

Beniamino Gigli (1890-1957)
The Gigli Edition Vol. 12 • London Recordings 1946-1947

By the time the war was over Gigli was in his midfifties, and realised that his career could not go on for ever, yet he proved to be as much in demand after the war as he had been before it. Indeed in Englishspeaking countries, soldiers who had acquired a taste for opera and song through war service in Italy provided him with a new audience. They crowded into Covent Garden and the Albert Hall when he returned to London at the end of November 1946. Just after, he was at Abbey Road Studios recording the first tranche of discs to be heard on this disc.

As he himself commented in his autobiography: ‘I was almost 57 but I still felt myself to be at the summit of my powers, and was confident I could remain so for several years’ - an assumption that proved to be right. He continued: ‘My longevity as a tenor was already something of a phenomenon, but the combination of luck on which it was founded could not, I knew, prevail against the inexorable laws of physiology’. He said he did not want to undertake new rôles, but perfect those he already had in his repertory. As popular as ever wherever he went, he commented: ‘I wanted as many people as possible to hear me and remember me’. To that end for the following eight years ‘I travelled so much that any account of them would necessarily sound like a railway timetable’. His next visit to Britain for a tour of the country was in November 1947 bringing further sessions for HMV comprising the second part of the present recording.

One of the titles for the 1946 recordings was the Serenade that opens Cavalleria rusticana. This is a memento of his appearance as Turiddu at Covent Garden with the San Carlo Company of Naples at the end of 1946. Many in the audience would have heard that company in situ and so flocked to their London season. A bonus as guest was Gigli both in Cavalleria and Pagliacci. But there was another reason for recording the Serenade: HMV and Gigli were anxious to replace the performance of this piece in the 1940, wartime recording in Italy with a better one, and Gigli obliged.

Gigli never appears to have sung Eléazar in La Juive on stage, but was obviously keen to record the rôle’s major aria, made famous on record by Caruso. As one would expect, Gigli’s account is filled with the appropriate remorse and passion. The piece from Halévy’s opera, always popular in his concerts, is given a suitably airy performance, in Gigli’s most honeyed manner.

The two pieces from works by Massenet are sung, as was Gigli’s wont, in Italian. Neither may sound idiomatic in style, but his tremendous conviction in Des Grieux’s Act III aria when he tries to expunge Manon’s memory as he takes holy orders is as irresistible as Werther’s famed Ossian Lied which calls for just the smooth legato and exquisite pianissimi Gigli lavishes on it.

For the rest Gigli offers a very wide variety of song, the kind of selection he would offer in London in concerts at the time and in which he was supreme in his own idiosyncratic way. When he strayed into German or English repertory the results could overspill into sentimentality, as does the harp-accompanied version of Schubert’s Ave Maria, sung in Italian. It surely must have been a marketing ploy on HMV’s part to have him record Adeste fideles and Silent Night just before Christmas in 1947. The three English songs, I’ll walk beside you, Bless this house and Smilin’ through, may offend the best of tastes today, but they were doubtless best-sellers in their day, and their soft-grained beauty combined with Gigli’s sweet tone still have a power to enchant the ear. I also have a penchant for Chopin’s Tristesse (vocal setting of an Étude), so popular at the time, and sung in French.

Otherwise Gigli is in his element in Italian song in which he remains unsurpassed. He had taken over from Caruso Core ‘ngrato and sings it with as much conviction as his great predecessor. His generous heart is also poured out in songs such as Tosti’s Segreto and Cittadini’s appealing Nostalgia d’amore and Ninna nanna. These simple pieces sung with such elegance and feeling are their own justification.

By this final, fourth period of his career, Gigli’s voice had certainly lost a little of its golden refulgence when he was singing full-out, and there are moments when we are conscious of the passing years, but enough remains to second his innate gift for communication. As he himself wrote: ‘ Communion with my audience - this was undoubtedly the most precious experience that I had found in my life as a singer. I decided that, in the active years remaining to me, it was this above all I would seek.’ This recording proves how successful he was in his aim.

Alan Blyth © 2005

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