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John Steane's “Dozen leading voices on record”

The GRAMOPHONE Cover CD Celebrating 1000 Issues

Galli-Curci – Rossini – “Una voce poco fa”

Caruso – Costa – “Sei morta ne la vita mia”

McCormack – Trad – “Star of the County Down

Chaliapin – Rubinstein “Persian Love Song”

Martinelli – Mascagni - “No, Pagliaccio non son”

Lehmann – Wagner – “Der Manner sippe sass hier in Saal”

Schwarzkopf – R Strauss – “Da geht er hin”

Callas & Gobbi – Puccini – “Ed io venivo a lui tutta dogliosa”

Supervia – Sharp – “Oh, no John”

Baker – Elgar – “In Haven”

Allen – Butterworth – “Think no more, lad”


So, The Gramophone , with its proud history of championing classical music, has reached the landmark of it's 1000 th issue, spanning the years from 1923. I have been a reader for only a little over half of that time, but I know that I owe the choice of a good proportion of my favourite recordings to guidance from the pages of that magazine.


To celebrate the 1000 milestone, John Steane was asked to name his dozen favourite singers and illustrate these with extracts on the cover CD. A formidable task, but although limited to a final list of twelve, he does manage to work in the names of 70 or so more into his article, evoking so many happy memories and surely inciting us to weigh his preferences against our own. It prompted me to play over other recordings of his chosen singers in my collection and to think about various alternatives.


So who did he choose? Galli-Curci and Caruso to begin with - no argument there, they take me back to my childhood days of wind-up gramophones and fragile 78's – these two singers were our favourites then, we played their records again and again and that pleasure is undiminished today. Galli-Curci with Una voce poco fa – no longer fashionable for a soprano to sing Rosina, but what artistry that silvery voice creates – nothing forced or over emphasised, every note hit right in the middle, and breath control to leave the listener quite breathless. Caruso next, with those glorious honeyed tones that won him so many fans. I could quibble and ask for Celeste Aida , but I'll settle happily for the Costa.


John McCormack – a true, Italianate tenor if ever there was one – but his engaging Irish brogue is always welcome with that amazing crystal-clear diction! Chaliapin, another much-loved voice and a formidable stage presence, (I never saw him, but I know I have only mention his name to my mother in order to be regaled with a string of reminiscences). Again, this is an instance where my choice of extract would have tended towards something weightier – Philip of Spain, perhaps – but time limits were obviously strict, and the Persian Love Song perfectly shows off his great voice.


Giovanni Martinelli's is one of the few names in Steane's list that I would challenge. For my third tenor I would skip a few decades to Nicolai Gedda whose voice is so omnipresent in my collection – the offertory from Verdi's Requiem epitomises his talents.


Next a German interlude, Lotte Lehmann and Elizabeth Schwarzkopf. I must admit that Lehmann would not have sprung to my mind, but listening to her Sieglinde has won me over – which leaves me to reject Schwarzkopf (accomplished though her Marschallin is) in favour of another pupil of Maria Ivogun, Rita Streich. She recorded a good deal of the “bel canto” repertoire that I love, but it is her Agathe which finally tips the scales in her favour.


Maria Callas and Tito Gobbi were certainly the giants of their era, but whilst Callas's recorded legacy seems never-ending, Gobbi's has fared less well – the stage was his natural metier. Thank goodness that Covent Garden 's Tosca with these two great artists was preserved on film, so the mind's eye fleshes out the music here.


Conchita Supervia, who heads up Steane's Spanish Quarter, is a luxury I could do without, and gives me most cause for thought. Perhaps I should turn to the French speaking countries and Suzanne Danco, Mado Robin or Jane Rhodes, but in the end it is the lack of any musical example in his list that predates Rossini that troubles me, so I reflect on the exponents of earlier repertoire – Emma Kirkby, Cecilia Bartoli – no, it must be Alfred Deller and one of those Purcell songs whose virtuosity he made so light of.


The final two names have my complete support. Dame Janet Baker, an immediately recognised and admired voice, I can't think of anything that she recorded which is not outstanding – and Sir Thomas Allen – especially with a recording of his from the current year – long may he continue to delight us.


So, my hat comes off to you Mr Steane – your article has called to mind echoes of so many voices and I can only admire the judgement of your choice and skill in picking extracts that so fully embody the essence of each singer's art.


Serena Fenwick