CARUSO RECORDS WITH BERLINER LABELS
FOUND IN CANADA
By Michael Jarvis and John Bolig
Jarvis: One of the results of the world-wide Coronavirus pandemic is the lockdown and subsequent social distancing required of us all. So, I’ve been stuck at home vacuuming and I happily realized I have unprecedented free time to explore my record collection.
About fifteen years ago I was offered part of a large record collection that was being dispersed. Among the discs were a quantity of early Canadian Berliners: pre-Victor brown labels, as well as a number of Monarchs, and early 10” and 12” Red Seal labels. At the time I quickly sorted and filed them. I knew there were two early Caruso recordings in there, but never paid much heed as the performances were already known (“Recondita armonia” from the opera Tosca, and the Siciliana from Cavalleria Rusticana.)
Fast-forward to last week, when, with lots of time on my hands, I looked them up in the Discography of American Historical Recordings, where “Recondita” was listed as “Canadian issue not verified”. I had the disc in my hand (which totally verified it DOES exist), contacted DAHR with the information, and then began a lovely correspondence with David Seubert. David then contacted John Bolig, who was, as he put it, “flipping out” over this. And, here we are…
Bolig: The discovery of two Caruso records with Berliner labels was a bit humiliating for me. I have produced two Caruso discographies, and I had never seen one of his records with a Berliner label. The records were produced in Canada in about 1904 before Emile Berliner called his company “His Master’s Voice”, and before he applied Victor-style red labels to recordings that he imported and marketed there. The discovery, and how Michael Jarvis contacted me is interesting, but how we determined the matrix data for the records is fascinating and it worked perfectly for us.
Jarvis: Both discs are single-sided 10”, and pressed in that lovely brown shellac that Berliner seemed to prefer in this period. I don’t know if that particular shellac helps with surface noise reduction, but relatively speaking, the surfaces of both discs are very quiet. Both labels are brown with gold writing, both have the brass grommet in the spindle hole. There is no information in the dead wax, apart from the record numbers. “Recondita armonia” plays at perfectly fine at ca.78 rpm, but at that same speed in the second record, the “Siciliana” from Cavalleria Rusticana, Caruso sounds like Alvin the Chipmunk. Something was slightly amiss…
Bolig: The titles for the two records convinced me that Berliner had secured two of Caruso’s 1904 recordings, but we had to make sure that the Berliners matched those pressed by the Victor Talking Machine Company. Unfortunately, there were no markings in the space next to the label that were of much help to us. They had been buffed out by the Canadian plant. Listening to the records did not seem to be an option, so I suggested a technique that I have used for years to compare two recordings.
Comparing different takes has always been a challenge for collectors. Listening to the records and hoping to hear clues about differences can be highly subjective, and there is an assumption that both versions were pitched properly and that the condition of the record surface was comparable. I have been measuring groove width for about sixty years and I have only found two takes by an artist that measured exactly the same despite the fact that they were different takes. Rosa Ponselle recorded an aria twice and both versions have exactly the same dimensions.
I pulled out the Victor recordings that Caruso made of the two arias in February of 1904, and I measured the width of the grooved area. Next, I measured the distance across the label from one end of the grooved area to the other. I sent my measurements for the two Victor recordings to Mr. Jarvis, and one was a perfect match; the other was a bit of a surprise. Mr. Jarvis sent me different measurements for the aria from Cavalleria Rusticana!
I remembered that Victor had issued some imported G&T recordings in 1903 and that one of them was of Caruso singing the “Siciliana”. I made the two measurements of Victor catalog number 5012 and it was a perfect match to within 1/16 of an inch to those made by Mr. Jarvis. No doubt about it, the second record was recorded by the Gramophone and Typewriter Company in 1902. Two men, armed with rulers, and working 3,000 miles apart had correctly identified the two Berliner records.
Jarvis: So, mystery solved!
Early Canadian Berliners do turn up from time to time, especially in Canada. In fact, just a few weeks ago I found, on Vancouver Island, BC, a strange pressing by Berliner of a Laughing Song from a G&T master, recorded in Oslo in 1904 (and announced in Norwegian!) I encourage you, especially if you’re in Canada, to pick up these discs if you come across them. If there are two hitherto unknown Canadian Caruso pressings, who knows what else there might be from this fascinating period of recording history? There was a practice of sometimes reserving alternate takes for the Canadian market, so if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to check the rest of my collection with the DAHR to see if I can complicate David and John’s lives further.