Voices Of (high) Note Some Are On The Record; Others Are Still Getting Ready

Posted: July 13, 1990

Dear Jack:

I was fascinated by your column (June 18) on Oleg Ryabets, the 23-year-old Soviet Army veteran whose "unbroken" soprano voice soars to a C above high C. You didn't mention whether he has been recorded. If he has, do you have any information about the label and catalog number?

I was also fascinated by your historical reference to castrati, those unfortunate young boys who were "altered" before reaching puberty to preserve the youthful purity and range of their voices. It goes without saying, of course, that the musical benefits could never justify the barbaric practice of castrating boys long before they reached what we now call the age of consent.

As you discreetly pointed out, it's ironic that castrati were widely employed by the Vatican's Sistine Choir, at the musical service of a church that has always stressed the importance of procreation. I was surprised to learn this practice was accepted until as late as 1903, when it was formally banned by Pope Pius X. But isn't there a contradiction in your claim that the last castrato, Alessandro Moreschi, sang in the Sistine Choir from 1883 to 1913? That would mean he sang there for 10 years after the papal ban.

Finally, I have a vague recollection of hearing an old recording of a castrato, made when he was an old man. Would that have been Moreschi? And do you know if that recording can still be found on the collectors' market?

As an amateur tenor who can't "soar" above A-flat, I appreciate your occasional pieces on music - and especially if they concern vocal music.

Steve Martelli, South Philadelphia

Dear Steve:

Since you're obviously of Italian extraction, you should be ashamed to settle for a "top" of A-flat.

Try alternating the long vowels of EE, OO and AA in progressively upward triads from your middle range, and don't worry about how it sounds. Stop using reference notes on the piano or pitch-pipe once you've begun. Just keep building those alternating triads and you'll be singing B-flats in no time.

For you and others who asked the same question, Oleg Ryabets, the Ukrainian adult male soprano, hasn't recorded yet. Teachers at Kiev Conservatory believe he needs at least three more years of training before he sings professionally, but a record company would be smart to sign him to a contract now.

As for the apparent contradiction in noting that Alessandro Moreschi sang in the Sistine Choir for 10 years after Pope Pius X banned castrati, by that time he was conducting the choir and a special exception was made for him.

The castrato recording you vaguely recall hearing had to have been by Moreschi, because he was the only castrato who ever recorded. In April 1902, the pioneering Gramaphone Co. Ltd. cut seven discs of Moreschi singing in a makeshift Vatican studio. In addition to sacred music, Moreschi spun out a unique rendition of Tosti's still-popular Ideale, which moved his fellow choristers to spontaneous applause and shouts of "Bravo!" (audible on the record).

In April 1904, the same company returned to Rome and cut 10 more records with Moreschi, including a remake of Rossini's Crucifixus, which he had sung with painfully audible nervousness the first time he ever faced the primitive acoustical recording horn. That second session also included the Bach-Gounod Ave Maria, in which Moreschi was accompanied by harmonium and violin.

The comparative power of Moreschi's voice was well captured in Calzanera's Oremus pro Pontifice, wherein his clear, penetrating tones dominated the rest of the Sistine Choir. Moreschi also overpowered his fellow singers in the 1902 recording of Mozart's superb Ave Verum.

There were odd features to the castrato technique, including the singing of grace notes scaling upwards to the principal note from below, across intervals as wide as tenth! These so-called acciaccaturas can give modern listeners the impression that Moreschi was "scooping" when he was, in fact, technically correct.

But you can judge for yourself, Steve, because all of Alessandro Moreschi's recorded work is available on an Opal compact disc titled "The Last Castrato."

Copies can be ordered through the Classical Annex of Tower Records, at 6th and South streets.

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