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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 3, No. 7

History Comes Alive: Naxos Historical and The Canadian Connection

by Wah Keung Chan  and Philip Anson / May 1, 1998

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sm3-7Naxos1.jpg (107948 bytes)The idea of historical opera recordings at a budget price was a contradiction in terms until the recent activities of the Opera Gala (Pelleas Distribution) and Opera d'Oro (Allegro Distribution) labels. Now a new initiative between the giant budget CD company Naxos and the British Columbia-based Immortal Performances Recorded Music Society (IPRMS) has collectors in a state of high excitement. Naxos Historical, as the new venture is called, has just released six Metropolitan Opera radio broadcasts from the 1930s and 1940s, previously available only on pirate labels at five times the low Naxos price. In many cases these broadcasts are the only existent recordings from the golden age of radio of well-known singers in certain roles. (Photo: The volunteer staff of Immortal Performances)

The Canadian behind this exciting initiative is 65-year-old archivist and sound engineer Richard Caniell. Caniell has always been a keen collector of old classical music recordings, but back in the 1970s he became fed up with the shady business practices and shoddy quality of the products he received from dubbing services and mail-order houses. In a recent interview from his British Columbia home, Caniell recalled the problems collectors faced back then. "Many of the commercially available recordings were poor 5th, 10th or 15th generation copies. Some recordings offered in the 1960s were actually intentionally degraded by the engineer who supplied the source. I know this because I worked as a sound technician at RCA Victor from 1949–50, and I heard the quality of original tapes."

The last straw for Caniell came in 1979 when he ordered a Toscanini broadcast from an American dubbing service. His cheque was cashed, but he never got the recording. Figuring he could provide a better service himself, he decided to explore the supply side of the business.

In 1980 Caniell formed IPRMS, a non-profit educational society based in idyllic New Denver, British Columbia (pop. 600). New Denver is nestled in the pristine Valhalla mountain range, the background for Caniell's other activity, the Valhalla Wilderness Society, an environmental preservation group against over-logging in British Columbia. Caniell spends his days lobbying the government on environmental issues and his evenings restoring old operas. "If people find our office's window display of environmental concerns and opera singer photos an odd combination, I tell them we are dedicated to preserving both our environmental and musical heritage."

Caniell's goal at IPRMS is not to produce slightly better copies of pirate recordings but to reproduce the master tapes or shellacs from the original broadcast sources. Of course, it was difficult to get copies from the Museum of Broadcasting in New York and the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., where most of the original transcripts are housed. Caniell's ten years as a criminal investigator in Los Angeles was probably good preparation for tracking down rare broadcast material. He spent 1981–82 licensing the rights from NBC, obtaining funding from the Canada Council, and getting endorsement from The National Library of Canada.

"In 1983, I obtained written permission from the Vice-President of NBC in New York, directing all holders of the transcriptions to make copies available to us. After that, I also contacted individuals who had major collections of Met broadcasts." The IPRMS collected about 2000 historic opera broadcasts from around the world, including 750 first-generation recordings of Metropolitan Opera broadcasts. It also owns an extensive collection of Toscanini broadcasts bequeathed to Caniell by the maestro's favourite RCA Victor sound engineer, the late Richard Gardner.

With permissions granted and recordings in hand, Caniell started the labour-intensive job of sound restoration. He recruited thirteen volunteers in the little town ofsm3-7Naxos2.jpg (65176 bytes) New Denver by handing out samples of his work. He also built up a mailing list of 200 members from 13 countries around the world, including many prominent music writers and critics. Caniell supplied over 600 recordings for Paul Jackson's second book on Metropolitan Opera Broadcasts, Sign-Off at the Old Met (Amadeus Press). (Photo: Richard Caniell, 1984)

In 1995 the IPRM Society almost ceased operations because a European pirate label was copying its product. According to Caniell, the president of Eklipse records, Robert Horneman, posed as a student to obtain over 125 of the IPRMS's best reconstructions, in flagrant violation of his signed membership agreement (three months after IPRMS issued a 1936 Met Götterdämmerung to its members, the same recording was commercially released by Eklipse/Walhall). Caniell rejected the expensive idea of suing the UK-based company, and he told at least one person — Texan critic and Callas expert John Ardoin — that he was going to abandon his work. Two weeks later he got a fax from Jonathan Wearn of Naxos proposing that Naxos should issue IPRMS recordings. Caniell had already been approached by VAI but chose the Naxos offer because it would make IPRMS recordings cheaply available to a wider public. The first 21 recordings were selected from the IPRMS vault by Caniell, John Ardoin, and the editor of Hamburg's Orpheus magazine on the basis of the rarity of the artists and repertoire. Ardoin chose the 1943 Leinsdorf Tristan und Isolde because there was no other Helen Traubel Isolde on the market. It was recently named Best Historical Issue by Opera International magazine.

Since signing the deal with Naxos, Caniell has been spending his nights and weekends restoring tapes for transfer to CD. He admits that his remastering techniques are not state of the art, but he hopes the success of the Naxos series will allow him to update the IPRMS equipment and to learn digital restoration technology. Restorations can take from three hours to weeks or months (he spent over two years on Act III of a 1948 Götterdämmerung ). Voltage variations in the original recording equipment often produce pitch variations, which must be corrected section by section. Caniell avoids noise-reduction technology that can reduce the bloom of the voice (frequencies from 5000-10000 hertz), and he occasionally boosts the bloom to recreate the excitement of the live performance. When Caniell uses two original sources, he uses separate machines to mix to a third machine, all in the analog domain. Then the recordings are treated in England with the Cedar System to remove loud successive pops and clicks.

Caniell is generally satisfied with the Naxos issues so far. "There are still some teething problems: a couple of recordings have too much or too little bass, but that will be corrected for the next pressing," he assured us. Future liner notes will also include photos, a plot synopsis, and biographies of the singers.

Caniell is currently working on restoring a 1944 I Pagliacci with Raoul Jobin, Licia Albanese and Leonard Warren, which he tracked down in the National Library of Canada's Jobin collection. It is of interest to collectors as Albanese's only recorded Nedda, but Caniell was also pleasantly surprised by Jobin's Canio.

Naxos plans to release approximately twenty operas and twenty Toscanini broadcasts per year (all over 50 years old, for copyright reasons). Caniell also hopes to publish his book on the Toscanini broadcasts. The next batch of Naxos Historical recordings will be released in Canada this summer.

Donizetti: La Fille du régiment
Lily Pons, Raoul Jobin, Salvatore Baccaloni, Irra Petina
Metropolitan Opera, Genno Papi, conductor, 1940
Naxos 8.110018-9 2CDs

sm3-7CDNaxos.jpg (30866 bytes)This recent release of a historic matinée at the Met in 1940 could not have come at a better time. Not only does 1998 mark the 150th anniversary of Donizetti's death, but this recording brings back the excellence of the two principal singers: the soprano Lily Pons and the tenor from Québec, Raoul Jobin. Pons gives us a marvelous technique -- just listen to "Salut à la France!" -- but also a smoothness of tone, a sweetness of timbre, an elegance and vocal charm that are difficult to find today. Her Marie is both moving and sparkling. You need only listen to "Il faut partir"... Jobin (and Pons for that matter) exhibits complete mastery of the comic-opera style, but that's not all. His Tonio is overwhelming for its ease, brightness and beauty of voice and for its dramatic tone. One must listen to Jobin sing the cavatina, "Ah mes amis!" to realize how mediocre modern tenors sometimes are. How unfortunate, then, that this production has the traditional cuts such as the cabaletta of that cavatina and Tonio's sublime aria, "Pour me rapprocher de Marie". On the other hand, Salvatore Baccaloni's Sulpice does not have the same idiomatic dimension, and his incarnation is decidedly exaggerated. As for the Italian conductor, Gennaro Papi, he directs the orchestra with energy and flexibility. Good sound quality. Great! Richard Turp

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