Summary for the Busy Executive: Drop-dead gorgeous, even through the Rice Krispies and milk of the original shellacs.
A true bass voice, like the true contralto, is exceedingly rare. Most basses are bass-baritones, just as most contraltos are mezzos with some extra low notes. Range, of course, enters into it, but tone sets the defining mark on the category. We can talk of Chaliapin, Pinza, Siepi, Hines, perhaps Talvela, and, in another category, Robeson, of those who had made major careers. Kipnis, Hotter, Morris, Ghiarov, and Christoff strike me more as baritones. As far as operatic work goes, there isn't a lot of call for low notes, particularly when a composer can generate excitement merely by writing few ledger lines above the staff. Still, there are wonderful roles: Don Giovanni, Sarastro, Ramfis, Boris, Mephisto, to name just a few. I first heard Pinza where just about everyone else did - on the original Broadway cast album of South Pacific. He was probably the first bass I had ever heard. By then, the voice was past its prime, but the considerable art remained. Just think of the soft, floating high note at the end of "Some Enchanted Evening" - "Ne - ver let her… go." Yeah, it's covered and perhaps even falsetto'd, but it's there, solid in pitch, and a convincing extension of the lower voice. Even when I was younger, I couldn't do it a tenth as well. At any rate, I forgot about Pinza until I started to study singing, when my voice teacher made me study him, and I began with his 1939 recording (Serafin conducting) of the "Confutatis maledictis" from Verdi's Requiem. The power I expected. It was the "Oro supplex et acclinis" that knocked me over. When I heard it, I knew two things with almost the force of revelation: I would never come anywhere close to that good, and I was merely a baritone who never learned to sing high. Alas, my brilliant career.
Of the basses I mentioned, Pinza stands out as the première basso cantando, or "singing" bass. Chaliapin might create more dramatic sparks, with a deliberate roughness, and Siepi, Talvela, and Hines are more ringing, although stiffer in their phrasing. Pinza's glory lives in the suavest musical line this side of Duke Ellington and in the seamless evenness of his tone, low to high.
Yet, this CD shows it wasn't always thus. Pinza worked to achieve it. What is apparent in the earliest recording, made when Pinza was 31, is a ringing, dramatic bass voice. Even here, the liner notes by John Steane point out that Pinza was at first rejected as a vocal student on the grounds that he had no voice. He came to study fairly late, and he must have worked like the devil. At 30, Toscanini brought him to La Scala. What Pinza lacks in 1923 is the beautiful singing line that I consider his hallmark. By 1924, however, in Halévy's "Vous qui du Dieu vivant," we discern a glimmer of it. With the electrical recordings of 1927, particularly Puccini's "Vecchia zimarra" and Verdi's "Dormiro sol nel manto mio regal," it's all there.
We should point out that recording, even acoustic recording, treated Pinza's voice kindly, as it did Ponselle's and Caruso's. On modern equipment, you get a very good idea of the voice in person, and you can hear the rare lapse. In "Isis und Osiris" (sung in Italian), Pinza's line is stodgy and he begins to bleat. I think he's aware of it, because he covers the tone more than usual, at least before his last years.
On the other hand, my favorite tracks are the 1930 performances of Don Giovanni arias "Fin ch'an dal vino" and "Deh vieni." In the first, Pinza shows an agility you don't often get with so heavy a voice. He tosses it off at the clip of an express train and obviously relishes performing such a feat. In the second, we have that gorgeous cantabile at its best. Beyond that, I also believe one gets someone who really knows how to act with his voice. It's an effort for me to listen to these cuts analytically, for I'm really caught up in the magnetic charm of the Don himself.
If you have no tolerance for "historic" sound, avoid this disc. On the other hand, if you want to know great singing (and the surfaces, while not pristine, aren't horrible), treat yourself to the greatest of the rare bel canto bassi.
Copyright © 1998, Steve Schwartz