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The Scrivener: The Presence Of The Past

Brian Barratt shares some musical memories - memories which you can experience aurally by purchasing some bargain-price Naxos CDs.

You can further share in Brian’s innate love of words and playfulness by visiting his Web site www.alphalink.com.au/~umbidas/

Among the family heirlooms there are some concert programmes from my father’s singing heyday in the 1920s. He specialised in oratorio. His teacher had been a student of Dame Clara Butt.

Ma and Dad both played the piano. We had several violins and a flute, albeit rarely played in the 1940s. Sheet music and libretti abounded.

Two of my older brothers sang as trebles in church choirs in the 1930s. One of them went on to study Lieder when he came home from WWII. He also had a wind-up gramophone and a collection of 78rpm records.

In my early teens, I would go with my brother into our front room and listen to Chaliapin, Martinelli, Galli-Curci, Caruso, Gigli, McCormack, Crooks and, of course, Master Ernest Lough.

Around 1950, the neighbours two doors down bought a television set. Very superior people, they were. They asked if I would like to watch something. I think my choice surprised them—Beniamino Gigli singing at the Royal Albert Hall. He was then about sixty and nearing the end of his career. I remember listening enthralled while we watched the flickering blue-black and white screen.

The first famous tenor I heard ‘live on stage’ (what a silly phrase!) was Kenneth McKellar. He wasn’t exactly a classical singer, but it was a thrill to go to his Melbourne concerts in the 1970s.

Then I heard Robert Tear. His rendering of ‘Annabelle Lee’, based on Edgar Allan Poe’s beautiful poem, established that song as one of my favourites. Yes, I’m a sucker for Victorian and Edwardian drawing room ballads as well as grand opera.

The next great tenor I heard was far from the drawing room—Guiseppe di Stefano, famous for his opera partnership with the divine Maria Callas. He, too, was nearing the end of his career. He couldn’t sustain the high notes, and had to keep going backstage for a glass of water or a rest.

I didn’t understand why the largely Italian audience was so emotional. But I know that tears were streaming down my cheeks. Next day, the local newspaper reviewed it as probably di Stefano’s final concert, and the Italians had been calling out words of encouragement and support.

I heard Luciano Pavarotti sing in the wonderful subterranean Melbourne Concert Hall. As he gave a recital of songs, rather than operatic arias, I confess that I was disappointed. But I did see the famous white handkerchief in all its glory, as well as hearing the great master’s voice.

I was certainly not disappointed when I heard Jessye Norman sing Strauss’s Four Last Songs at Melbourne Town Hall. A divine voice and such a compelling presence on stage.

Like many others, I sometimes wonder if there were ‘Three Top Tenors’. My personal favourite is John McCormack His rendering of ‘Il mio tesoro’ from Mozart’s Don Giovanni is still the one against which all others are measured, 90 years later. To hear him singing ‘O sleep, why dost thou leave me?’ from Handel’s Semele is quite simply a sublime experience. If you don’t believe me, listen to the way he flows through the second incidence of the word ‘wandering’, on one breath for nearly twenty seconds, apparently without effort.

He might not qualify for the top three, but Gigli certainly does. Enrico Caruso is, I think, accepted as the greatest of all. Perhaps we can include Giovanni Martinelli. His 1928 rendition of the Miserere from Verdi’s Il Trovatore is a goose-bumps experience.

Jussi Björling has been ranked in several polls as the greatest tenor and the greatest singer of the 20th century. One evening, years ago, I listened with a friend to twelve recordings from my collection of tenors past and present singing ‘Nessun Dorma’ from Puccini’s Turandot. Who was the finest? No doubt about it—we voted for the 1944 Björling recording.

Some of these great voices can still be heard on the very cheap but high quality CDs produced by Naxos. If you want to hear them in their full glory, re-processed through the unique Digital Ambisonic system, then hunt down the Wyastone Nimbus ‘Prima Voce’ list. You’ll be amazed.

The glorious past is still with us.

© Copyright Brian Barratt


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