Muzio The Published Edisons, 1920-25
There can be few events I would rather be carried back to in a time capsule than Muzio's performances as Tosca with Caruso as her Cavaradossi at Covent Garden and the Metropolitan, New York. What vocal and histrionic frissons they must have provoked. Those were the years of Muzio's prime. Shortly after she made a substantial number of records by the Pathe and Edison processes incorporating many items that were in her repertory, others that were not. Much as we treasure her late Columbias for their peculiar intensity (recently reissued on EMI (CD) CDH7 69790-2, 8/89—preferable to me to the inferior Nimbus transfers), it is essential to hear the earlier discs to build up a full portrait of one of the century's most affecting sopranos. In the early 1920s, when all the Edison recordings included here were made, Muzio's voice was inevitably a fresher instrument than in 1935, and much of the artistry and feeling heard on the Columbias is already there. Listen, for instance, to her deeply moving performance of ''Sorgi, o padre'' from Bellini's Bianca e Fernando, saturated with that elegiac, sorrowful tone and light vibrato that were so much a hallmark of Muzio's voice and style, the phrasing eloquent, gentle, never exaggerated. I cannot understand those who say that the art of bel canto was in the shadows in the 1920s with evidence of this kind before them nor can I imagine a reading that so perfectly encapsulates Bellini singing at its best.
Lauri-Volpi wrote of Muzio's voice as being ''made of tears and sighs and restrained interior fire''. Those characteristics can be savoured on practically every track of these CDs, which start auspiciously with an impassioned account of the Salvatore Rosa solo. Leonora's ''Tacea la notte'' is more secure and just as tenderly phrased as the later Columbia, ''D'amor sull'ali rosee'', at once thoughtful and intense. Muzio, a vivid Nedda in the Ballatella, is joined by a splendid baritone new to me, Mario Laurenti, in the duet with Silvio (foreshortened).
''Pace, pace'' is perhaps not quite as involving as the Columbia, but still among the best on disc. The same can be said of ''L'altra notte'': here it is that catch in the voice, the delicacy of the coloratura, made part of the aria's expression, and the concentration of thought behind the singing that make Muzio so compelling. Like her great successor, Callas, she could easily and naturally switch to the kind of classical line called for by the Lombardi aria, where again she confirms my thought that she was as good as anyone at pure, contained singing. The Bolero from I vespri demonstrates another side of her art: the natural fluency of her singing, though her even earlier Pathe of this piece is said to be more brilliant—and a trill is lacking. Mimi was always a Muzio speciality; you may feel that this version, lighter, more coquettish, is preferable to the heavier, slower Columbia. Only the account by her coeval, Bori, seems in the same class. The first CD closes with a Rossini song, an example of Muzio's persuasive way with trifles. The floated tone, the gentle rubato, the ideally judged portamento make for a magical performance.
The second CD includes many of Muzio's Edisons of non-Italian music. They display again the distinctive character of her voice. She is a sensuous Salome in the Herodiade aria, providing just the right, forward voice Massenet calls for. That is sung in Italian. Her ''Elle a fui'' is in excellent French: it is telling for its simplicity of expression and a lightness of touch seldom heard in the piece today. Tatyana was one of her Met roles: here the final part of the Letter scene, in Italian, is predictably involving. At the end of the disc she is back in her more familiar Italian roles, equally suited by Wally, Maddalena (Andrea Chenier) and Adriana. In between she is heard in a moving account of ''Lascia ch'io pianga'' (where she avoids the heaviness of mezzos in this piece) and in several trifles that she turns into things of memorable charm, not least when singing in her endearing English. The gently swaying sound in the waltz song from Herbert's Orange Blossoms is irresistible, but it's perhaps in the sighing
Now I must mention a drawback. Anyone unfamiliar with Edisons may be bothered by the often distant sound and the sometimes noisy surfaces. These can be obtrusive yet they never interfere with the actual sound of Muzio's unique voice. It is well worth persevering for the rewards are great. The order of items here is precisely that on the two-LP deleted Rubini box of 1981, and on internal evidence these transfers to CD appear to have been made from the same tapes as the LPs, though the sound is just that much cleaner and fresher.'