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Estimates of Immortal Performances



(John Steane is the author of The Grand Tradition (Duckworth and Scribner), Voices: Singers and Critics and 3 volumes of Singers of the Century (all Duckworth and Amadeus). Contributor to The New Grove Dictionary of Music. From 1975-1995 frequent broadcaster on BBC Radio 3 and World Service. From 1974 critic for The Gramophone magazine, Opera Now, etc. He is also the author of Marlowe: A Critical Study (published by Cambridge University Press) and editor of the works of Marlowe and Nashe in the Penguin English Library editions.)

In a book published almost forty years ago I wrote of the invaluable supply of ‘private’ recordings, mostly taken ‘off-the-air’ of live performances, some of them from the 1930s, noting that unfortunately they came with much factual misinformation and were unreliable in matters such as speed and pitch. I added that it was to be hoped that one day these faults could be amended, with proper editing of the originals and with more scholarly care over documentation. In one instance (and by no means the most important) I said that attention of this kind, by whoever provided it, “would earn eternal gratitude”. Richard Caniell is the man who has done most to win that gratitude in the intervening years.

Working with a small, dedicated body of assistants, in a privately run but officially recognised organisation on a non profit-making basis, he has now amassed a library of some hundreds of these recordings, all made publicly available, in maximum clarity of sound, speeds and pitches corrected and full documentation provided. Many of the recordings are of symphonic and operatic performances renowned in reputation but otherwise lost to present-day listeners as hearing-experience. The artists – conductors, instrumentalists and singers – are, typically, the very greatest of the last century.

These are the cold facts and are (or could be) open to all. The purpose of my writing now is to pay a more personal tribute. Living and working in England, I have never met Mr Caniell and do not suppose now that I ever will. But over the years he has been close and vivid as a man of exceptional devotion to his calling. And that is what it is. As a young man, he heard a record of music conducted by Toscanini which moved him more deeply than he thought music could ever do, and that was the start. A record-man, with a passion for greatness in performance, he followed where this led. Then the realisation that so many recordings lay undiscovered, ‘un-mined’ and essentially wasted drove him to work in this field, and, where most of us would be content to research and leave the practicalities to others, he got down to the job himself, mastering the technical business and (most crucial of all) being prepared to put in the hours of labour, identifying minute faults and correcting them. At all stages he has met with set-backs that I know would have deterred me and would have discouraged anybody. If ever any private enterprise in this field of preservation and restoration deserved support, this of Mr Caniell’s most surely does.



(Professor emeritus of drama at Bishop’s University, director, music critic (Opera Quarterly and numerous music books) and author.

I write in support of Immortal Performances’ project to restore and make available to the public an important part of our cultural legacy (circa 1934-1960) as preserved in public domain operatic and symphonic broadcasts. Its founder, audio engineer, Richard Caniell, inaugurated this endeavor in 1980 with the endorsement of The National Library of Canada, The Music Council of Canada, with financial support from the Canada Council of the Arts. Out of this emerged 109 critically acclaimed CD albums with many important restorations of these broadcasts now held by The National Library and the University of Quebec at Montreal.

I became acquainted with Richard Caniell and Immortal Performances when I heard a CBC Radio documentary about his work re-broadcast, after the program has won the World Gold Medal for Best Documentary, Classical, at the World Festival of Radio and Television held in New York in 2000. After hearing this, I telephoned him and we discussed the twenty years in which he had been deeply involved in the restoration of classic recordings of legendary operatic performances and recitals from all over the world. We talked excitedly for an hour or so, by the end of which I had promised to write the introductory essays for a number of his upcoming albums.

Before all of that I had grown up in the world of theatre and opera in San Francisco, where from childhood I had acted in plays, later directed them as well, and also sang in musicals and some opera before getting my Ph.D. in drama at Stanford University. I then came to Canada (1974) to teach and direct in university and also write about opera and drama for the Opera Quarterly and other periodicals, and in books such as Shakespearean Criticism, The International Dictionary of Opera (which became The St. James Opera Encyclopedia), and eventually The Metropolitan Opera Guide to Recorded Opera and the subsequent Met Guide to Opera on Video.

We’ve never actually met, but this has become, I think, one of the great e-mail and telephone friendships, as over the years we have discussed what might be restored and written. Among the many albums for which I have written are those for the Favero-Gigli Act II of Roméo et Juliette, the complete Jurinac Cosí, the Rossini Petite Messe Solenelle conducted by Barbirolli, the San Francisco Opera Gems albums I and II (with acts or extended passages from such rarities as a 1939 Nozze with Sayão, Rethberg, and Pinza; a 1940 Carmen with Marjorie Lawrence, a 1940 Ballo with Bjoerling and Rethberg, a 1940 La Juive with Martinelli and Rethberg, a 1940 Andrea Chenier with Gigli and Rethberg, and a 1945 Carmen with Rise Stevens and Eleanor Steber, as well as unforgettable live passages with Melchior, Lehmann, Flagstad, and Schorr), a complete Reining-Della Casa Rosenkavalier, the 1948 Toscanini Boito Memorial Concert at La Scala, and the Maison-Bovy Contes d’Hoffmann.

I review all this only as prologue to what is the point of this letter: to clarify for you the uniqueness of what the Immortal Performances series (and before that, Richard’s Guild series) offers to the opera world in general and, specifically, to a living history of opera as it was performed by the great companies in the 20th century.

First there is the matter of technical excellence. Richard’s restorations are the equal of any that have been published — in clarity and truth to what was in the grooves (and the throats) in the first place: not as simple as it may appear. To eliminate too much noise may distort the voice being recaptured. To retain too much of it may blanket the voice so much that its special qualities remain undisclosed. A proper decision in each case can take hours — or days — and each passage in a given performance can demand a new decision. The establishment of proper pitch is another variable. As you may know, 78’s, transcription records and tape were often run at inaccurate speeds, and adjustment of them demands knowledge of the pitches both traditional and those that may be adopted by a given singer or earlier technician, skilled or not. For example, did the great soprano Rosa Ponselle lower her pitch in singing “Sempre libera” a whole tone or a half-tone? Did her technician “correct” that by then speeding up his recording so that she seemed to be singing at score pitch? Final accuracy can take considerable research into original sources, and, failing that, remarkable knowledge of the qualities of a given voice in other recordings, so that a just decision, one hopes, can be made.

Beyond that, there are artistic “technical” decisions constantly required. Old amateur live recordings often have gaps of sections of music as the blank recording discs were being changed, or when damage has destroyed part of the master. For example, there’s a blank spot in a section of the Lina Bruna Rasa live recording of Cavalleria Rusticana (the Hague, 1938, which she sang with the tenor Antonio Melandri and with the composer conducting). Do you fill it in with a like section of the commercial recording that Bruna Rasa made with the wonderful Beniamino Gigli a few years later, again with the composer conducting, or do you use a little section of the commercial recording made in 1927 by Bruna Rasa’s tenor — the highly dramatic Antonio Melandri — to maintain dramatic and vocal continuity? Richard chose to use the old Melandri recording. Partly because of this decision, but also for its recapture of the remarkable qualities of the Bruna Rasa voice, Gramophone Magazine recently chose Richard’s restoration of Bruna Rasa’s magnificent live performance as the most moving of all recorded Cavallerias.

Perhaps the most typical, and most moving, of all of Richard’s productions so far has been his creation of what he calls the Dream Ring: a Ring Cycle with nearly absolute dramatic and musical continuity, and cast with the greatest recorded singers in Ring history — with, as far as possible, one singer to a role throughout the four operas. That required years of accumulation of the best sound sources for restoration, and the creation of a sound picture throughout that did not call attention to its multiple sources and yet remained true to the magnificent voices recorded. Then there was the problem of casting. For example, whom did one chose for Wotan? Friedrich Schorr, whose upper voice was no longer in prime shape, but who had an understanding of the character’s essential nobility, humanity, and vulnerability that was beyond comparison? Or should one choose some other bass-baritone with a healthier basic sound? Richard went for that unique profundity, and chose Schorr, who gives us a Wotan of depth reached by few other singers in the whole of the twentieth century.

For Richard, a Dream Ring needed also to represent as closely as possible a consistent philosophical view from the conductors’ standpoint, no matter how good the singers or the recording acoustic. One would not want to follow an obviously inconsistent approach from two conductors. These artistic decisions can mandate months of instinctual response and rational thought, followed by more months of technical struggle to get those decisions realized faultlessly in the assembled performance.

And finally there was the problem of a creating a performance that had existed on the stage but had never been recorded. One example will do. A Dream Ring, he rightly thought, must contain both Kirsten Flagstad’s unequaled Brünnhilde and Lotte Lehmann’s legendary Sieglinde. Separate broadcasts existed of both individual performances, recorded in the late thirties. The solution was to combine them — seamlessly! And Richard proceeded to do just that, and with spectacular success, so that at last we have a recording of the third act of Die Walküre with two of the greatest singers of the 20th century in what may be their greatest roles. The resulting performance, for vocal beauty and depth of feeling, is considered without recorded equal by nearly all who have heard it.

Finally, the essays which accompany all of the Immortal Performances CD albums are almost without parallel for thoroughness and depth. Richard’s writing shows an enthusiasm for the emotional and musical profundity of the recordings he has restored that is an education in itself. Larry Friedman, annotator for the Russian Legacy recordings by Immortal Performances has an encyclopedic knowledge of the Russian works and the singers he discusses. The past releases of Immortal Performances and the equally important ones yet to come contain examples of artistic perception, and the thousands like them that, recorded, still reside in past performances of genius, should never be lost. They are our culture, and can be a civilizing force. That is, in part, their value to Richard and the rest of us, and what motivates him to go on with the business of, well …restoration.

Actors, writers, singers often say they would do what they do even if they were paid nothing. That’s what we, in fact, do, because we love it. Funds to continue this project are not intended to pay the principals who labor at it, but for all the needed necessaries which make the CDs possible: the updated equipment, the replicated CDs, albums, the production of the booklets, the storage space, the secretarial help, the insurance, the purchase of rival CDs to find out whether what sources the project has located are sufficiently superior to justify release to music lovers, and the cost of effective advertising, so that customers (individuals, schools, voice students, all the people of all ages who love opera or artistic accomplishment in general) can discover what excellence in style, beauty of sound, and depth of artistic feeling really sound like. The twentieth century lies behind us. It’s over, dead, in a narrow sense. But put an Immortal Performance CD of Lauritz Melchior in the Dream Die Walküre singing “Winterstrüme”, in a voice as fresh and apparently effortless as the coming of Spring, or Chaliapin in 1928 going mad as Boris, or Flagstad as Kundry calling for Parsifal in the most ethereal and yet sensual of voices, and the past is suddenly living, and present, and full of marvelous evocation. What a gift to us all! We must continue to behave responsibly toward it.



(Head of Classical Division CBS Records 1970; Director of Masterworks Marketing, Europe, for CBS in Paris; Head of the Classical Department, RCA Records in London, 1975; Founder of three successful specialist record labels; wrote and presented an eight-part History of Classical Recording for BBC Radio, 1980; Editor Musical Opinion and its sister production The Organ; Editorial Consultant, International Record Review, critic for Classical Record Review; author of sixteen books and has written numerous musical compositions.)

Within just 15 years in the 20th-century, the great established music traditions in Russia and Germany were turned upside down: in Russia, the Bolshevik Revolution of October 1917 caused many composers, conductors, pianists, violinists and singers to leave and seek a new life elsewhere. In January 1933, the election of Adolf Hitler as Chancellor of Germany ushered in the 12 years of Fascism which destroyed so much of every aspect of the country and its heritage – including, of course, music. The destruction of German cities by allied bombardment included opera houses, concert halls, conservatoires of music, libraries, and those individual musicians who, if not murdered in the concentration camps, through the religion of their forefathers, became civilian victims of the hostilities.

Some musicians and composers were able to escape and leave war-torn Europe, where they sought refuge elsewhere – in the New World, or in countries not so directly involved in the conflicts. If they had little in terms of material possessions, they brought with them their intellect and musical abilities and were therefore able in part to transfer much of their country’s musical traditions to their new environments.

None the less, the wholesale destruction of so much of European classical musical life which had, despite other vicissitudes, thrived so powerfully in the years up to 1938-39 meant that the tradition, the artistry, the accepted standards of performance and the appreciation of musical art on the widest scale was in many cases almost miraculously preserved through the medium of broadcasting in those pre-war years. And those artists who were welcomed in other parts of Europe and the New World, were able, through the broadcasting media in those free societies, to bring their musical traditions to post-war audiences.

By post-1945 much of the tradition had been literally destroyed in the very countries which had nourished it, and today, sixty years later, the tradition survives only in those broadcasts and relatively few commercial gramophone recordings of the time.

It is a tradition of considerable artistic importance: great singers of the past, great violinists, great pianists and other instrumentalists, great conductors and great orchestras – musicians nurtured in the tradition and saw it preserved it in broadcasts and recordings – it is their art, now surviving by the thinnest of threads, that music-lovers and musicians today, as well of future generations, can study and experience anew, ensuring that the great schools in musical interpretation are not lost forever.

The fact that broadcasts survive from this period does not of itself guarantee their suitability for study or even for leisure listening today. Technically, they were pretty much a ‘hit-and-miss’ affair: FM broadcasting had not evolved, and they exist in many forms; many have been damaged during the war years or by subsequent poor storage; many have been transferred time and again in unsuitable formats with a consequent loss of signal; many are bedevilled by faults in the original signal, or by mistakes in the actual original broadcast; nor were they always recorded correctly – and so on, with the result that to render then acceptable to musicians today a considerable amount of refurbishment and restoration work has to be undertaken.

Such work is highly demanding of the sound engineer, who should possess a combination of skills and abilities rarely encountered in one person. They have to have a keen ear, and be able to identify the type of fault in the source material; they have to have up-to-date technical knowledge which identifies how the fault is to be corrected and have access to the equipment that enables them to make those corrections; most of all, of course, they have to be musical and know the difference between a musical matter and a technical matter.

Because of the rarity value of old recordings – commercial or broadcast – a number of firms have been set up to capitalise on this growing market. But one often finds that old material has not been treated properly or even damaged in the process of refurbishment, with the result that the issued performances can be at best no more than a shadow of what the source material actually contains.

Of all the people engaged in this work, Richard Caniell of Immortal Performances is one of the finest in the world. As a sound restoration engineer he has no peer, but in addition his own high musical standards have led him to a position of international pre-eminence in this field.

The painstaking skill with which he approaches his tasks ensures that he will not accept anything less than the best possible results that can be obtained from the original sound recordings, and as a consequence he has garnered outstanding critical acclaim from some of the most highly respected writers on music across the globe.

Because of his skilful attention to musical detail and his unwillingness to accept second (or third) best, Richard Caniell has produced some of the finest restorations ever achieved. But all of this takes time, often much more than others, far less skilled or authoritative in the subject than he, would take – and time is money.

In artistic terms the results of Immortal Performances speak for themselves. Through the company, the restoration of such consistently magnificent artistry for us and for future generations, which would otherwise be lost forever, is assured. What Richard Caniell does is akin to the restoration of great paintings or damaged manuscripts, and for the sake of the preservation of the cultural heritage of civilised society, across the world, his work must be given the means by which it can continue to enhance our lives and those of future generations of musicians and music-lovers everywhere.

For further information about the great vocal artists offered in our CD releases, including articles, discographies and photos, see The Record Collector at:
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