His Masters’ Voices

The world’s oldest record companies, in business now for a hundred years or more, are celebrating their centenaries mainly by recycling the past. That’s fine with me – recordings have preserved innumerable great performances that should always be readily available. But except for Sony Classical’s superbly produced Masterworks Heritage series, few of these reissue projects have ventured back further than 40 years, leaving hardy independent entrepreneurs to mine what many collectors consider to be the true riches: the work of singers and instrumentalists who flourished during the first decades of our departing century and who represent an approach to music-making quite different from ours. One of the leading “sound restorers” of these treasures is Ward Marston, whose ability to draw a maximum amount of information from old record grooves may be heard on dozens of historical reissues from BMG, EMI, Romophone, Pearl, Biddulph, and others. Eager to bring even more material out of the vaults, Marston has created his own, eponymous label, and the thirteen releases to date set new standards in the field.

Now his own boss, Marston is free to serve his special enthusiasms. A high priority is the classic French school of singing, which had more or less vanished by mid-century. In 1911, Pathé began recording complete operas, discs that few have heard since, partly because of the technical difficulties in transferring them to modern LPs or CDs. Marston plans to bring them all back, and he has begun with the final entry in the series, Massenet’s Manon, recorded in 1923 with the irresistible Fanny Heldy. The soprano’s colleagues, including Jean Marny as Des Grieux, are less well known, but they all respond to the opera as a living piece of music theater (Massenet had been dead just eleven years). Not only is Heldy’s technical control awesome, but she also projects the character’s charm with an immediacy and freshness that contemporary Manons seem to have lost. Soon to come from the same source are Donizetti’s La Favorite, a completely different opera when heard performed with its original French text, and Verdi’s Le Trouvère, the composer’s virtually forgotten version of Il Trovatore for the Paris Opéra.

Connoisseurs who yearn to hear other authentic Gallic voices should investigate the two-disc sets devoted to the baritone Maurice Renaud (1860-1933) and soprano Ninon Vallin (1886-1961). Although he lacked Pol Plançon’s velvet-voiced virtuosity and Victor Maurel’s chameleon-like diablerie, Renaud was just as extravagantly admired for his versatility and expressive range – his impassioned address to Senta from Act Two of Wagner’s Der fliegende Holländer (sung, of course, in French) is a positively searing statement by a doomed soul clutching at a last hope. Renaud was a popular figure in New York, Boston, and Chicago between 1906 and 1912, but Vallin hardly ever appeared in North America. Her distinctive style and tangy timbre illuminated a huge repertory of French song and opera during a long career that lasted from 1911 to 1956, and Marston restores all 43 of her Pathé selections made in 1927-29 – Thaïs, Manon, Carmen, and Louise have seldom sounded more seductive than they do here. In this series, Vallin also is revealed as a bewitching singer of French mélodies as well as an unusually voluptuous Puccini interpreter.

Unjustly forgotten American singers are also high on Marston’s list: Alma Gluck, for instance, whose silvery voice enchanted the country between 1911 and 1924. She was the first RCA Victor artist to make a record (“Carry Me Back to Old Virginny,” released in 1914) that sold a million copies. That song is not on her two-disc Marston set, but 49 other exquisite selections from the soprano’s concert and opera repertory more than make up for the omission, giving ample evidence of why Gluck’s limpid voice was so universally beloved.

The first instrumentalist to get the full Marston treatment is Josef Hofmann (1876-1957). This imposing pianist, writes Harold C. Schonberg, was a classicist among romantics, “a musician blessed with an unerring ear, taste, and the ability to float lines that seemed to spin into eternity.” Hofmann was curiously reluctant to display those gifts on recordings, but the few that he made, plus tapes of live concerts and broadcasts, have all been carefully remastered by Marston, four volumes for the VAI label and a new two-disc set for his own.

Another important piano discovery, Ernst Levy (1895-1981), remains unknown to all but the most dedicated piano buffs – he is not even mentioned in Schonberg’s book on the great pianists – but the two CDs that feature this “forgotten genius” storming through sonatas by Beethoven and Liszt should change all that. Mostly recorded in the mid-fifties for obscure American labels, these defiantly personalized performances are utterly free of convention and burn with conviction. Levy’s demonic rendition of the Liszt Sonata, in fact, is among the most thrilling I have ever heard.

Clearly a man of parts, Marston is quite as intriguing as the musicians whose performances he so lovingly restores. Some have attributed the excellent sonic results he gets to the fact that he has been blind since birth, but that’s debatable – after all, who knows what other people hear? Marston himself thinks that perhaps his disability has simply given him an edge by allowing him to concentrate on sound images more intently and without visual distraction. In any case, his home in suburban Pennsylvania contains a network of sophisticated electronic equipment and some 25,000 historic recordings.

When not engaged in bringing old records back to life, Marston plays jazz piano with his own trio, takes cross-country skiing trips, and indulges in a newfound hobby: skydiving. But music comes first as he pursues an ideal. These legendary performances, he insists, should sound not like “old records” but like music, as free, truthful, and natural as modern technology can make it. The priceless treasures preserved by the phonograph over the past 100 years deserve no less.

His Masters’ Voices