Emma Calvé - Complete 1902 G&T, 1920 Pathé and "Mapleson Cylinder" Recordings
In the alphabetical index of great singers, Calve follows Callas, and the sequence is suggestive. Both were actress-singers who brought revelations of opera-as-theatre to the audiences of their time; both acted with the voice (as contemporary accounts of Calve tell and as we know to be so with Callas); and both were strong personalities among the most famous women in the world. One sad and striking difference is that Callas’s recordings testify amply to this, while Calve’s are inadequate in repertoire as well as technical conditions to do her justice. Yet much is caught, right from those extraordinary cylinders made at performances in the Metropolitan in 1902 where, among all that is lost, her high-notes can be heard ringing out well into the house above the orchestra, with a tone sufficiently distinctive for us to associate it with the studio recordings made later that same year. They in turn are reinforced by the amazingly vivid series made for Pathe in 1920, by which year the singer was in her early sixties.
This two-CD set complements the earlier issue on Romophone (6/97) of Calve’s Victor recordings and the ‘death-bed speech’ or message supreme. Together they supersede the Pearl edition (two discs, 11/91) at least in terms of completeness (among the Pathes not included by Pearl are an interestingly wayward Clavelitos and, a real gem, three unaccompanied folk-songs, Coplas andaluz). Opinions may differ on the question of speeds-and-pitches. Marston places the first studio recording, Carmen’s Habanera, a semitone above score-pitch, and the rest of the playing-speeds correspond, so that Magali has a magical quatrieme voix high B flat at the end. The producer’s note makes it clear that this is deliberate but does not explain the grounds of the decision. The quality of copies used and results obtained is fine, though Pearl’s transfers mastered by Colin Attwell stand up very creditably in comparisons.
There is a second singer in this new issue, however, and her presence adds greatly to its attractions. Cecile Merguillier recorded for Pathe and Edison in 1904 and 1905 when virtually in retirement though only in her early forties, and still singing with fresh voice, assured technique and captivating style. A light soprano, she was singing Philine in Mignon (an energetic performance of the Polonaise is among her records) in 1887, the night the old Opera-Comique burnt down. Her solos from Mireille and Philemon et Baucis are especially delightful, and as far as I know this is the first time a full sequence of her records has been collected on disc. The issue is finely presented, with informative notes and some excellent photographs.'