Up to the present, Nimbus’s Prima Voce series has restricted itself to the transcription of 78rpm vocal recordings made between (roughly) 1900 and 1950. Now it moves into the era of the LP. For more than 20 years Warren and Milanov sang together at the Metropolitan Opera, New York, where they were stars of the front rank, both associated first and foremost with the central Italian repertoire. Warren’s career ended in 1960 when at 48, onstage in La forza del destino, he died of a heart attack. Milanov, five years his senior, joined the company in 1937 and retired in 1966.
They pair well: magnificent voices, ideally suited to the dramatic roles which represent them here. Milanov’s rich tones and authoritative manner placed her in a line with Rosa Ponselle, several of whose roles she inherited and on whose art she sometimes refined (hear the scrupulously clean and even “La vergine degli angeli”). Warren’s power and brilliant high notes recall Tito Ruffo, but a Ruffo who, unthinkably, had studied, as Warren did, with Giuseppe de Luca (hear the exemplary “Il balèn del suo sorriso”). In range and depth of expression Milanov was no Callas and Warren no Gobbi. Both have disconcerting moments of unsteadiness, counterbalanced by many more – Milanov in “Pace, mio Dio” or “D’amor sull’ ali rosee”, Warren in Rigoletto’s “Cortigiani” or Ford’s monologue – where their undoubted distinction rises to greatness.
Warren’s Verdi recital is coupled with a second disc devoted to sea shanties, settings of Kipling, and “Songs for Everyone”. Some of the shanties are disfigured by cute orchestral accompaniments, but “Haul away, Joe”, crowned by a ringing high A natural, is worth picking out. The Kipling group includes two arch-cringemakers, “Gunga Din” and “Danny Deever”. And the other songs may not be for quite everyone (me, for example) but there’s pleasure in “Love’s Old Sweet Song” and “Mother Machree”, sung simply and with totally admirable evennness and moderation. Transfers are fine – but I hope the Prima Voce series will not turn its back on the “prim’ anni”, the first 20 or 30 years of recording, where it has made such a valued provision and where so much remains to be harvested.