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Collect 78s? Me? You must be joking!

Two years ago this was my reaction to the suggestion that I should buy 78s. In this modern age of DVD and “digitally remastered”, “24 bit” CD transfers why on earth would I want to do that? Well, here I am now trying to find space for the latest additions to my 78 collection, which has grown rapidly to over 600 in less than 24 months. So that’s it then. I have finally taken leave of my senses! Or have I? What is it about 78s that I now find virtually irresistible?

The story really begins in 1992, when I went to a performance of Don Giovanni at Covent Garden. My one and only previous outing to an opera in the mid 70s had convinced me that opera was not for me. The Don Giovanni was a revelation and since then I have avidly collected complete operas, mostly on vinyl. Why vinyl? First of all, the boxed LP sets are cheaper than CDs and, in many cases, the sound has always seemed more immediate and pleasing to my ear. My love of opera kindled an interest in voices, particularly those of days long gone by. I listened to the likes of Schipa, Gigli and Chaliapin on LP and CD.

I spotted an advert in my local record shop for the Recorded Vocal Arts Society, which meets in Central London, so a friend and I decided to go along one evening. We were immediately aware that women are very much in the minority at RVAS - the world of 78-collecting is clearly male-dominated. And age? Suffice to say, I hadn’t felt so young in years! As the evening wore on our giggling became more hysterical as we listened to the racket from those scratchy old 78s. We thought that this “scene” wasn’t for us; perhaps we should just stick to the modern recordings and leave the historical to those who remembered them from when they were young! We decided, however, to persevere. So what changed? We realised that, after a while, one starts to hear the voice through the surface noise. The turning point came for me one night when the speaker played Chaliapin singing the ‘Death of Don Quichotte’ by Ibert. The sorrow and anguish in his voice held me spellbound and his final note was so exquisite I felt like sobbing! Silly? Not at all! I had just discovered a medium that could move me as much or more than anything I had ever heard. I had to have that song - not on LP or CD, but on 78!

The first step was to buy something to play 78s on. My mum found a portable “Dansette” in a junk shop in Southampton (I can imagine the seasoned collectors cringing at the thought but I had to start somewhere!) I began by buying the more common red and plum HMVs to get a feel for the more well-known voices eg. Gigli, Galli-Curci etc. I didn’t plan to have a large collection of 78s - just a few favourites to play every once in a while in between the opera. But the more I bought, the more “hooked” I became. I discovered the voices of singers whose names I had never heard of which I liked immensely, e.g. Infantino, Rimini, Beyle, Lazzari et al. Even with excellent issues by labels such as Rubini and Symposium there are so many singers out there who are only available on 78. I would hate to think what I might be missing if I should stop now!

After a while I realised that I would need to invest in new equipment because of problems with the speed of many of the 78s. A classic example was a record of Gigli sounding like a bass baritone! With advice from “those in the know” I managed to get a variable speed machine for a reasonable price. Great fun to play with and essential if you are serious about collecting 78s. I also bought a modern amplifier, which I now realise was a mistake. The sound was much too “boomy”. It would be fine for bringing the house down with Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid” but not for the gentle tones of Muzio’s “Del Mio Amato Ben”! My most recent acquisition is a 1960’s amplifier, which is perfect. For anyone who might be thinking that this is an expensive hobby in terms of the “right” equipment, it doesn’t have to be. Classified ad papers and internet auctions throw up many bargains.

Where do I buy my records? My local shop has provided the core of my collection. Flea markets on trips abroad have yielded some treasures. Then there are the record fairs that take place regularly around the country. Some dealers are still trying to come to terms with a youngish (!) woman fingering their 78s. One recently told me that I was only the second female 78 collector he had known in his life; the other one was dead! Many assume I am looking for Elvis or jazz - I sometimes can’t resist asking if they have any Donarelli, Fugere or Kastorsky just to put them in their place. Naughty, I know, but what future is there for important historical recordings when the younger collector is not encouraged?

Once I started to collect I realised that I needed to read up on the singers I was listening to. Kutsch and Riemens, Michael Scott’s Record of Singing and of course The Record Collector are invaluable sources for information. Gramophone catalogues are also essential to give an idea of what recordings exist by particular singers.

Many 78s will never become available due to their rarity or, if they do, they will certainly be out of my price bracket! Thus is the importance of true transfers, as near as can be, to the originals on CD. Do not assume that what you are listening to on CD is the “real thing”. A popular label, endorsed by a respected critic, are issuing 78 transfers which have been “cleaned up”. All hint of that nasty surface noise has been filtered out so that we can hear the voice more clearly. Surely, however, you cannot clean up a 78 without losing something of the warmth of tone? This particular label’s transfer of, say, “O du mein holder Abendstern” by Marko Rothmuller has bled the colour and real emotion from what, on the original, is a sublime rendition. Enough said! I’ll take the 78 every time!

So there you are. I admit it - I am a 78 collector. Most of the people I know think I’m potty. But I have managed to get one or two of them to admit that they like many of the singers I have recorded for them, and they are shocked when they discover they are listening to 78s. I have had so much pleasure in the last two years, and discovered so many new voices, that I cannot imagine life now without those musty, heavy old things that I spend hours cleaning with a toothbrush!!

I would love to hear from anyone who might be considering taking the plunge into true historical recordings. The future of 78 collecting is in our hands!

Chrissy Giles