The Nimbus Prima Voce C.D. Series
Since writing my recent piece “What About Today”, I have fortunately heard further evidence that the supply of fine new vocal talent is continuing to increase. At the same time, some of the new voices heard recently have sent me back to singers from the first four decades of the 20th Century to make some comparisons. My collection includes many discs from the British label Nimbus. They pioneered their remarkable recording technique in 1989. The Nimbus Prima Voce Series makes listening to these past singers a much richer and more rewarding experience than it used to be. Most of these C.D.’s are easily available on Amazon, often for bargain prices. They are by far the best way to hear singers whose recordings were made on 78 R.P.M. records. The sound quality difference between the Prima Voce Series and other transfer methods is particularly striking in pre-1925 acoustic recordings, though considerable improvement is also obvious in electrical recordings made beginning in 1925, when the microphone made it possible to record a full orchestra, as well as bringing increased fidelity to recorded voices.
Nimbus’s technology for transfer of the old 78’s is unique. They constructed a small, acoustically ideal “hall”, where they placed a specially constructed horn gramophone equivalent to the best models made in the early 20th Century. Thorn needles were used, as they produced the best sound. Digital microphones were placed in the tiny hall and a mint copy of the 78 played on the gramophone while the sound engineers recorded the playback digitally from outside the hall. Thus the voices were finally allowed to resonate in ideal playback circumstances in acoustically perfect surroundings. The results are much more satisfying than before, as the resonance of the little hall frees the voices from the acoustically dry recording rooms where the originals were made. Originally, only people with the highest quality gramophone placed in a room with fine acoustics (obviously a rare combination in a home) could have heard similar results. Nimbus has now made these wonderful old singers palatable to the ears of a more general modern audience than only the collectors and specialists, always a small minority, who cannot help but be delighted as well.
As an example, I have heard original Caruso 78’s in good condition played on a good modern phonograph using a 78 needle, though the rooms I heard them in were never acoustically excellent. I have also heard RCA’s L.P. and C.D. Caruso transfers , including their unsuccessful 1970’s attempt to improve the old records by a computerized process which removed most of the surface noise but did that great voice no favors. Then, Ward Marston’s transfer of Caruso’s complete recordings on Naxos gave us considerably better results than theretofore, but the Caruso I hear on the Nimbus versions beats them all, including the estimable Mr. Marston, fine as his work always is.
Some will no doubt ask “Why listen to these old records at all, considering the superiority of modern sound and the many fine living singers?”. This is an easy question to answer. For example, which 20th Century soprano had the richest soprano voice for such Italian repertory as Norma, and such Verdi operas as La Traviata, La Forza del Destino, etc., still unequalled? Rosa Ponselle is the only name that comes to mind, as it should be. Which Wagnerian soprano on record had the most beautiful voice for such roles as Isolde and Brunnhilde? Again, the answer comes easily: Kirsten Flagstad. The most phenomenal Italian tenor voice of them all? Caruso, of course. By far the greatest Wagnerian heldentenor (heroic Wagnerian tenor) on records ever? Lauritz Melchior. Has there been a baritone since to match Lawrence Tibbett for the great Verdi baritone roles? Absolutely not; Leonard Warren probably came closest, and even he could not match Tibbett. Are there any lyric Italian basses who would like to challenge the superiority of Ezio Pinza? This could go on for pages, but the implications are clear. Anyone who loves great singing will be astounded and delighted to hear such paragons, and they and so many others available on Prima Voce are great inspirations and models for today’s young singers.
Yet another distinction of Prima Voce is the excellence of the material selected. Obviously the programmers know their subjects. An excellent example of the judicious selection process is the disc devoted to the Spanish tenor Miguel Fleta. Like Aureliano Pertile, Fleta made some wonderful records. At his best, he seems among the best. To hear him at his worst, not vocally but in terms of taste and musicality, is an unbearable experience. His hysterical sobbing, crying, and a tendency to sing quite sharp to squeeze the ultimate degree of “emotion” make for intolerable listening. However, to hear the Nimbus C.D. is to be unable to believe that these very negative comments could be applicable to this fabulous singer. Fortunately, few of the singers represented had such extremes in quality of performance, but the Fleta disc shows that whatever the choices available, Nimbus will know just what to give us to showcase each singer at his or her best. In addition, more casual listeners will not be likely to react to hearing these versions of the old records by saying, “I just can’t listen to this singer because of the extreme limitations of the sound quality”.
Fortunately, there have been fine singers in every generation, though certain periods have certainly given us more than some others. Hopefully, many will discover greatness in most if not all of the Prima Voce singers and their musical experience will be all the richer for the discoveries. To make a selection here of recommended discs would be to almost reproduce the entire list of available C.D.’s, and would be too subjective anyway. My recommendation: Access the entire list of available recordings in the series, look at some of the reviews on Amazon, research the unfamiliar names a little and buy a couple of them, then hear for yourself. If you are partial to mezzo sopranos, try a couple of those first, and so on. If you love great singing, your collection will probably rival my own before long. Greatness is timeless.