Nellie Melba – Complete Gramophone Recordings, Vol 1
This is very good news. Melba’s recordings for American Victor came out in a complete edition on Romophone, also with transfers by Ward Marston (5/95). There have also been a number of compilations on single discs; now the London recordings from 1904 to 1926 are scheduled in four volumes on Naxos, and here is the gratefully welcomed first.
Melba has been through some bad times in the opinion ratings. In the June 1941 issue of Gramophone, for instance, a thoughtful writer, Gordon Whelan, cited her as the outstanding example of ‘a topsy-turvy scale of values’ established among admirers of ‘historical’ singers. After playing and listening carefully (he said) to the Melba records then up for deletion, he concluded that on practically every account she would not satisfy modern listeners.
I at one time shared some of these critical opinions, yet coming upon that voice repeatedly in later years (including the present) I simply find the sound quite extraordinarily moving. In Tosti’s Mattinata, the very first record in the series, the purity of its quality and the ease of production are infinitely special. The credibility-gap I used to experience, in timbre, personality and even carrying-power, disappears almost instantly and the recognition is almost as instantly an affectionate one.
I suppose that when all four volumes are complete it will have to be admitted that the contribution to repertoire is hardly significant and that for a singer whose name resounds so potently she is still open to criticisms of the kind voiced in Gramophone all those years ago. Yet, equally, it’s clear from almost any of these early records (perhaps not Three Green Bonnets!) that here is a singer who in respect of certain gifts and accomplishments provides touchstones. Perhaps she wouldn’t ‘satisfy’ today; but think of all those singers who seem to be found acceptable and yet by comparison with Melba’s purity, evenness and technical mastery ought not to satisfy!
In saluting the work of Ward Marston we should also remember his predecessor in this field. This was Bryan Crimp who produced for EMI one of their finest albums on LP (11/76), never transferred to CD.
The only additional item in the new issue is a ‘spliced’ version of the two Penseroso sides (also given separately), in the first of which Melba stops and says: ‘Now we’ll have to do it over again’. That aria, incidentally, ends with a good full-voiced high D, avoided in later versions. As for the stop, the authorities appear to differ as to its cause. Peter Dempsey in his excellent leaflet-note assumes that Melba’s concentration lapsed; Ward Marston, in his, blames it on the flautist.