Ten Favorite 78s

 

This is a revised version of an article with the same title that appeared in Victrola and 78 Journal, issue 12 (winter 1997-1998): [36]-38. My thanks to Tim Gracyk, editor of Victrola and 78 Journal, for permission to put it on the web.

I often see questions on the Internet asking how much a particular record is worth. Usually the answer is "not very much," but I always add that there's generally a reason why records sold well and that when I think of the records in my collection that I most enjoy, major rarities do not come to mind. To test the truth of this, I made this list of 78s, none of which would have three-figure minimum bids on dealers's auction lists. Record numbers given are issue numbers in the original country, U.S. or British issue numbers (whichever is not the original country), and, in some cases, LP or CD issue numbers. This article is not intended to give the full discographic history of each entry; for other issues, consult discographies of the singers or standard discographic reference works.

 

1.Alnæs. Lykken mellem to mennesker. Kirsten Flagstad, soprano; Eyvind Alnæs, piano. HMV AL 2265, X-2974, AGSA 34; CD Simax PSC 1821. Matrix BN 191-2, recorded 19 Jan 1929.

2. Weber. Oberon: Ozean! du Ungeheuer. Kirsten Flagstad, soprano; Philadelphia Orchestra; Eugene Ormandy, conductor. Victor 15244; HMV DB 3440; CD Simax PSC 1821, Romophone 81023-2. Matrices CS 013077-2A and CS 013078-1, recorded 17 Oct 1937 in the Academy of Music, Philadelphia, with an orchestra of 65, 2:15-4:15 p.m. EST.

I spent five years of my life compiling the Flagstad discography that eventually became my thesis. Thus her appearance twice on this list should be no surprise. The Alnæs song was recorded the same year as her first public performance of Elsa in Lohengrin, a role she learned at age twelve, and three years before her first Isolde. It shows a silvery lyric soprano voice, not small, but lacking the size evident in her later records. Her simplicity and communicativeness give the lie to claims that she could not put across a song, and the dynamic range from forte to floated pianissimo shows her a thorough mistress of her instrument. The Oberon aria, recorded some two and a half years after her spectacular Met debut, finds her in her prime, performing with a great orchestra and conductor, in one of the world's great halls, captured in state of the art sound for its day. None of her recordings made on other occasions has all of these qualities. In his notes to Rococo LP 5380 (reprinted in Simax CD PSC 1821), Arne Dørumsgaard tells of his love for the way Flagstad sang the opening of this piece, and I fully agree. The firm attack on the initial E-flat, with a perfectly-controlled diminuendo as she moves to the same note an octave lower, sets the mood. The end of the aria is equally impressive, with her huge voice sailing through the coloratura and trilling with ease. The very end should lay to rest forever the notion that Flagstad did not have a good high C--and, unlike some famous sopranos, she does not omit the phrase before the top C or even pause for breath before singing it.

 

3. Verdi. Ernani: Sorta è la notte...Ernani involami. Ina Souez, soprano; Alberto Erede, conductor. Victor 14493; Japanese Victor JD 1288; LP Orion ORS 7293. Matrices 2EA 4018-1 and 2EA 4019-1, recorded 19 Jul 1936, Abbey Road Studio, London.

I bought this record in a thrift shop decades ago. When I first heard it, I was blown away. First, unlike even the LP versions I have heard, it is uncut. That, and Souez's phrasing and subtle rubato make this, for me, the version to which all others are compared--and, so far, found wanting.

 

4. Falla. La vida breve: Vivan los que ríen! and Allí está riyendo. Victoria de los Angeles, soprano; Philharmonia Orchestra; Stanford Robinson, conductor. HMV DB 6702. Matrices 2EA 12817-1 and 2EA 12818-1, recorded 14 Mar 1948, Abbey Road Studio, London.

I remember one of my professors in college telling me that his wife, who has even less respect for singers in general than I do, had been impressed by this record. Thus, when I found a copy a few years later, I was especially excited. In a nutshell, she was absolutely right. De los Angeles's flawless intonation, creamy, luscious sound, and passionate delivery are worthy of any musician's respect--or envy. I have been known to declare these the two greatest vocal recordings ever made. Then I say to myself that surely this praise is too extravagant and try to think of other candidates. So far, I have failed.

 

5. Puccini. Turandot: Nessun dorma! Beniamino Gigli, tenor; Philharmonia Orchestra; Stanford Robinson, conductor. HMV DB 21138; Victor 10-3761 (dubbing). Matrix 2EA 14232-1, recorded 4 Oct 1949.

Gigli was 59 when he recorded this aria, and still had the golden sound, good intonation, and breath control for which he had been renowned. It sounds as though he could still be holding that high B at the end! It is said that Puccini wrote Calaf's music with Gigli's voice in mind, and, thanks to this record, we understand why. I could live without the Technicolor, Hollywood ending, involving only the chorus and orchestra, that HMV saw fit to graft onto it, though.

 

6. Rachmaninoff. To the Children. Nora Hopper; Old Irish Air; arr. C. Milligan Fox. By the Shortcut to the Rosses. John McCormack, tenor; Edwin Schneider, piano. Victor 1288; HMV DA 1112, IR 368 (Rachmaninoff) and Victor 1528; HMV DA 1234, IR 210 (Old Irish Air). Matrices BVE 27085-4 and BVE 41546-2, recorded 17 Dec 1925 and 13 Jan 1928. 75.00 and 77.43 rpm. (Note: BVE 41546-1 was issued on Victor 10-0041 in set DM 1358).

McCormack has been a favorite of mine since I first heard his peerless recording of "Il mio tesoro" at about age thirteen. These two recordings, a doubling that never existed in real life but that should have, are as different as two songs can be. I almost always play them back to back. The Rachmaninoff distills every bit of the love and worry and hope all parents have for their children. McCormack expresses these feelings in a way that would move a block of granite; no matter how many times I hear this disc, I am invariably emotionally drained by its end. "By the the Shortcut to the Rosses" is a lighthearted trifle, the sort of encore piece that McCormack's alchemy could transform into a masterwork. It proves the perfect antidote to the Rachmaninoff. Note particularly McCormack's use of an Irish accent here, absent in "To the Children," and his attention to diction: the last word, "land," is sung on one of those soft notes for which McCormack held the patent, and he articulates the final two consonants clearly.

 

7. Thomas. Le caïd: Enfant chéri des dames ... Le tambour-major tout galonné d'or (Air du tambour-major). Pol Plançon, bass; with orchestra. Victor 88034, 18143; G&T 032033. Matrix C 3030-2, recorded 14 Mar 1906. 76.60 rpm.

Neither Plançon nor this infectious aria need much discussion. Though he is often painfully sharp, he also negotiates the scales and trills with an easy grace, élan, and elegance impossible to fault. I admire his peerless technical mastery, but it is the unparalleled way Plançon's subtle characterizations and personality leap out of the grooves and across more than a century that I find most satisfying.

Since I originally wrote this article, I have come to appreciate Plançon's final version of the aria, recorded 27 Mar 1907 on matrix C 3030-2a, and issued on Victor 85119, more than I did back then. Many consider the 1907 recording to be Plançon's definitive statement on an aria he recorded many times. I have been unable to decide which of these two versions I prefer. So I have included both here. I transferred the 1907 recording at 77.43 rpm, the speed W.R. Moran suggests in volume two of The Encyclopedic Discography of Victor Recordings.

 

8. Charpentier. Louise: Depuis le jour. Bizet. Carmen: Je dis que rien ne m'épouvante. Eleanor Steber, soprano; Philharmonia Orchestra; Walter Susskind, conductor. HMV DB 6514; Victor 12-0690. Matrices 2EA 12298-2 and 2EA 12299-2, recorded 17 Sep 1947.

Watching The Voice of Firestone was a weekly ritual when I was growing up. Steber appeared frequently, so I got to know her at an early age. For my money, she is the great American soprano (and no, I don't mean just of the post-WWII era). Hers are my favorite renditions of these arias, thanks to her excellent intonation and control, and her sensitive, passionate, almost sexy delivery. Listening to Steber, I cannot imagine what Don José saw in that other girl. According to Stephen Gamble's Dennis Brain, a Life in Music, p. 249, Dennis Brain plays the horn part in the Carmen aria. (My major instrument was French horn.)

 

9. Delibes. Lakmé: Dov'è l'indiana bruna. Amelita Galli-Curci, soprano; with orchestra. Victor 74510, 6132; G&T 2-053130, DB 263. Matrix C 18595-10, recorded 5 Mar 1917. 78.2 rpm. (W.R. Moran suggests 76.60 rpm.)

Roberta Peters was another frequent guest on The Voice of Firestone. I remember hearing her sing the Bell Song, and I loved it. So it is no wonder, when I started to collect records, that I wanted to hear how the legendary Galli-Curci did it. On this disc Galli-Curci displays all of her many good qualities and avoids most of her bad ones, especially the unreliable intonation that increasingly plagued her as time passed. Her youthful sweetness of tone and razor sharp coloratura, along with that certain indefinable something that distinguishes the great from the good make her my favorite coloratura soprano.

 

10. Donizetti. Lucia: Chi mi frena in tal momento? (Sextet). Amelita Galli-Curci (soprano, Lucia), Minne Egener (contralto, Alisa), Enrico Caruso (tenor, Edgardo), Angelo Bada (tenor, Arturo), Giuseppe de Luca (baritone, Ashton), Marcel Journet (bass, Raimundo). Verdi. Rigoletto: Bella figlia dell'amore (Quartet). Amelita Galli-Curci (soprano, Gilda), Flora Perini (contralto, Maddalena), Enrico Caruso (tenor, Duke of Mantua), Giuseppe de Luca (baritone, Rigoletto). Both with orchestra; Joseph Pasternack, conductor. Victor 95212 (Lucia), 95100 (Rigoletto), 10000 (both); HMV 2-054067 (Lucia), 2-054066 (Rigoletto). Matrices C 19133-2 and C 19132-2, recorded 25 Jan 1917. 76.00 rpm.

This is the disc that started it all. Dad bought a copy of Victor 10000 before I was born, and when I was a good boy growing up, I got to play it. I loved the pieces and the performances both then and now; my (i.e., dad's) copy has been played to death and is practically worn out. Nevertheless, whenever I plop it on the turntable, a multitude of memories flood back. It is directly owing to this record that I became a record collector, decided to study music professionally, compiled a discography, and even wrote this article. It has had an incalculable influence on my life and has much to answer for.

All transfers are by the author from discs in his collection.