[James Drake is an internationally known author, pedagogue, administrator, and general all around expert on opera singers. He has written the definitive biography of Richard Tucker and several books on the legendary American soprano Rosa Ponselle. NK]
In the mid-1970s, when I was writing occasional articles for High Fidelity, I interviewed renowned Ukranian-American basso Alexander Kipnis about his career and the singers and conductors he performed with. As I often did with other singers and conductors I interviewed, I asked him for a list of the ten tenors he regarded as the greatest, and also asked him to explain why he rated them as he did. Here is his list, which I’m sure readers will find interesting:
1. Leo Slezak – I sang with him so I can speak about him from that experience. He sang heldentenor, Italian, French, and German roles and was one of the finest lieder singers ever.
2. Enrico Caruso – I did not hear him ‘live,’ but I sang with many who did. He had the greatest Italian tenor voice on recordings. I made some acoustical recordings so I know how the voice was affected by that method.
3. Beniamino Gigli – The most beautiful Italian tenor voice of my time, though not an actor.
4. Aureliano Pertile – I heard him at Covent Garden in 1929. Not the most beautiful voice a very fine actor and excellent musician.
5. Max Lorenz – A heldentenor who could sing lieder—much better than Melchior, who could not sing an art song if his life depended on it.
6. Giovanni Zenatello – The best Otello of my experience, and also very good in the French repertoire.
7. John McCormack – He turned Irish songs into great music when he sang them, and his command of lieder shows how much of an artist he was.
8. Jussi Björling – There are misconceptions about him from his recordings. His voice carried to the last row of any opera house. He knew very well what roles fit him on the stage, and he also had a good sense of humor.
9. Giacomo Lauri-Volpi – A bel canto tenor who could sing everything from Puritani to Otello, and was especially good as Calaf.
10. Alfredo Kraus – The finest tenor of today—he has the range of Lauri-Volpi, he is an excellent musician, an excellent actor, and also an excellent recitalist.
[The following comments are Jim’s response to my observation that I found Björling hard to hear at the Old Met. NK]
Reviews of Björling’s Metropolitan performances, especially during his first season, reflect a concern on the critics’ part about the roles he was singing. After a performance of Trovatore with Zinka Milanov as Leonora and Bruna Castagna as Azucena, Jerome D. Bohm wrote in the New York Herald Tribune, For the present Mr. Björling would do better to adhere to such parts as Rodolfo in ‘Bohème’ in which he made his debut; forcing his voice for dramatic roles will only result in divesting it of its native agreeable timbre.” When I interviewed Zinka Milanov and told her that I regarded Björling’s and her Tomb Scene from Aida as the best version on recordings, she took me to task and said that Björling would never have been able to sing Aida in the Old Met, and added that if I wanted to listen to a “real” Radames, I should listen to Richard Tucker.