The 1906 Recording session at Craig-y-Nos Castle

“In the autumn of 1906 I made notes about the recording of another legendary
figure of the Victorian age, Adelina Patti. I feel justified in quoting them
at length because of the importance accorded to her advent on records and the
fact that these were among the few records thought worthy of being included in
the archives of the British Museum and the Paris Opera.

I have always instinctively felt that Patti was the only real diva I have ever met-the only singer who had no flaws for which to apologize. Not doubt she had so mastered the art of living and protecting herself from the public gaze that she could plan her appearances for just those moments when she was at her freshest and brightest. The year she celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of her debut was the year she consented to make gramophone records.

When my brother and I went to Craig-y-Nos Castle we traveled by a narrow
gauge railway to Penwylt, not called Craig-y-Nos. Here a bus met us and we
drove to the somber and imposing edifice where the singer lived. There we were
greeted at the door by her agent, Mr. Alcock, and his wife. We soon discovered
that every provision had been made for receiving us: two large bedrooms had
been cleared and were placed at our disposal. Here we assembled our recording
machine. We had a curtain over one of the doors, and through a hole projected
the recording-horn. The piano was placed on wooden boxes and when Madame Patti entered the room she was terribly intrigued as to what was behind that long horn. She had the curiosity of a girl, and peeped under the curtain to see
what was on the other side.

It was an ordeal for her to sing into this small funnel, while standing still in one position. With her natural Italian temperament she was given to flashing movements and to acting her parts. It was my job to pull her back when she made those beautiful attacks on the high notes. At first she did not like this and was most indignant, but later when she heard the lovely records she showed her joy just like a child and forgave me my impertinence. Do not imagine for a moment, however, that when we set up the recording machine Madame rushed into the room to sing. Not a bit of it. She needed two full days to get used the idea, during which she simply looked in every now and again and saw the ominous preparations for immortalizing her voice. She did not know whether to be glad or sorry. To reward us for this long wait she would say: “Those two nice gentlemen-let them have champagne for dinner tonight to make up for their disappointment.”

She was used, in a queenly way, to rewarding any services or kindness that
people showed her. She had a large and noble heart, but was decidedly
temperamental; she would be calling everyone “darling” one minute and “devil”
the next. But perhaps a woman who had sacrificed so much for her art and for
her friends and relatives could be forgiven all these outbursts of temper.

It was in the days of her second husband the tenor Nicolini that her castle
was at the height of its merriment and could fairly be called Liberty Hall.
Wonderful performances of operas took place in the private theatre,
particularly Romeo et Juliette and Faust, with Patti and Nicolini playing the
principal parts. They were a loving couple both on and off stage. Later
Nicolini financed Paganini’s Restaurant, Great Portland Street, which became
the haunt of so many famous musicians in the nineties.

I feel that the week we spent at Craig-y-Nos brought joy to Patti’s then
somewhat retired life. and after we left she no doubt settled down to a rather
humdrum existence. When we were leaving she commanded the butler to give us braces of pheasants and masses of flowers from the garden, which we took back to London as trophies of our visit.

Another bright spot was when we brought these records for her to hear some
weeks afterwards. Again the hospitality of Craig-y-Nos was placed before us
and we saw what a charming host her third husband, Baron Cederstrom, could be.

The records we played to Patti and Cederstrom we could truly say were
exceptionally good, and Patti was not disappointed in the sacrifice she had
made to carry out this recording. In most of them she was accompanied by Sir
Landon Ronald, who was instrumental in carrying out the negotiations. In a few
she was accompanied by her nephew, Mr. Barilli from America, who happened to
be her guest at the time.

Madame took a keen interest in her records and whenever visitors came to
the castle she proudly showed them off to her admiring listeners. We can only
regret that the present improvements in recording were not at our disposal
when her records were made but, such as they are, they give a very fair idea
of the vocal reserves of Patti even at the age of sixty-three. Remembering
that this lady started her public career at the age of nine your can imagine
that her voice was not in its prime. Few other sopranos had a career of over a
half a century, however.

I heard later that when my brother and I arrived Madame instructed her
friend, Mrs.Alcock, to take a peep at these two suspicious characters and
report to her what they were really like. When Mrs.Alcock returned and said we
looked like harmless young men, she said, “Well, look after them well.”

I can vouch that we were royally treated. They set before us not only the
reserve of their gardens and hothouses but also the choice of the wine
cellars. A master-hand knew the vintages which Nicolini had so intelligently
laid down and we drank many toasts to the health of the house. Occasionally
Patti would look in on us and would make some passing joke; she was always
ready to share a laugh. One of her treasures was an orchestrion of the type,
which was in vogue in the big country houses of those days. Hers was supposed
to be the biggest in England. With one blast it would resound through those
old walls in a most odd way. At least 60 instruments were represented and she
had 120 music rolls for it. The instrument itself was a Freibourg costing L
2,500 and the rolls cost L 11 each.”

From: “The Music Goes Round” by F.W. Gaisberg 1942

 
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