Joseph Calleja and Dominic Fyfe on The Magic of Mantovani
As his affectionate tribute to Mario Lanza back in 2012 illustrated, the Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja has something of an affinity with the great crossover artists of the mid-twentieth century, and for his latest project with Decca he’s gone one step further by ‘duetting’ with recordings made by Mantovani in the 1950s and 60s, including such evergreens as Charmaine, Spanish Eyes, Que Sera, Sera and Besame Mucho.
I spoke to Joseph and Decca’s Dominic Fyfe about Mantovani’s remarkable legacy, his long-term relationship with the label, and the technical and musical challenges involved in bringing these recordings back to life from a new perspective…
How did Mantovani’s relationship with Decca begin?
DF: Mantovani signed to Decca in 1940, and it was a relationship that endured exclusively for over three decades – one of his first recordings for Decca was accompanying Vera Lynn on her classic White Cliffs of Dover in about 1942, and his last LP was recorded in the early 1970s. That Vera Lynn album was recorded in the old Decca studios on Broadhurst Gardens in West Hampstead, which was basically Decca’s Abbey Road at that time: you’d have Kathleen Ferrier in there one week and Bing Crosby the next! That where the vast majority of Mantovani’s recordings were made, and they were extremely important to the company financially – we’re talking about a man that sold 60 million albums in his lifetime, and I think the first LP to sell a million copies anywhere was by Mantovani. In 1966 Decca was awarded the Queen’s Award for Industry, and that coincided with Mantovani’s sixtieth birthday; there was a concert at the Royal Festival Hall where Sir Edward Lewis presented Mantovani with a gilt baton, which is now hanging in his son’s dining-room. Interestingly, Sir Edward said to Mantovani that the award really belonged to him, which is an incredible acknowledgement of the success that Mantovani and Decca enjoyed.
Was Mantovani’s trademark sound in part a product of contemporary advances in recording technology, or was he in fact a catalyst for some of those developments?
DF: I suspect it was a bit of both: his sudden leap to success coincided with the birth of the LP and stereo, because of course Mantovani is all about the sound, and Decca’s engineering in the post-War period was quite legendary. Mantovani's career saw all sorts of evolution, including Full Frequency Range Recording and even Phase Four Stereo, which was used for his very last recordings with us. The relationship worked so well because Decca provided this unparalleled sound and Mantovani responded with these incredibly inventive arrangements and his wonderfully distinctive cascading strings effect. When we started investigating, we discovered that much of that was actually written into the arrangements: one might imagine that it was all a fabrication in the studio, but it wasn’t at all! Because of the immense amount of touring that he did (particularly in America), it had to be something that they could replicate for real, and when I looked at the original handwritten parts I saw how different groups of violins would be subdivided to get that trademark effect.
What Decca did introduce from the early 60s was added reverberation: that beautiful silky, echoey string sound was enhanced using reverberation chambers that were built on top of the studio. The engineers would send the sound from the studio up to a loudspeaker in the chamber, where there was a microphone which picked it up, and that was then fed back down to the desk. These days it’s just done via electronic plug-in, but back then it was essentially a natural effect – if you talk to some of the old engineers they’ll tell you that the chambers used to end up full of dead pigeons and goodness knows what else!
Did the original recordings need much work before they were useable for the project, or were they preserved in mint condition?
DF: It was a bit of a mixed bag, because the recordings have been reissued numerous times over the last thirty years, and the condition can vary from one tape to another. We worked with the Universal Music archive to try to trace the best original source for each track: in some cases that was the original mastertape, in others it was a later generation copy that was simply in better condition. I’d say the majority have been completely remastered, and some were just in fantastic shape – one of my favourites is Spanish Eyes, which was on one of Mantovani’s last LPs and was made in Phase Four. When I first put the idea to Joseph, he assumed that we were going to take the original arrangements and get him to record them with a live orchestra. And I said ‘Trust me on this: when you hear these tapes played back to you in a studio you’ll see that you won’t get better than the originals, technically or musically’. It literally just took one test-recording and he was convinced.
JC: Of course Mantovani isn’t my generation at all, so although I knew who he was it never occurred to me that it would be possible to do a physical collaboration posthumously. Dominic came to me and said ‘Look, I’ve listened to some tracks that were laid down in the 1950s - I know your voice and musicality, and I think that there’s something for you here’. I agreed to try out a few tracks in the studio, and we were both astounded by the results and by how organic it all was: it doesn’t sound at all like it was recorded with an almost 70-year gap. It’s quite extraordinary how much my musicality and his coincided.
It might not sound like the most sexy or exciting way to work, but it was almost second nature – there weren’t a lot of takes, there wasn’t a lot of cut-and-paste, it really was as if I was singing live with a conductor next to me. I don’t mean to over-hype it, but I honestly felt as if Mantovani’s ghost was next to me whispering in my ear about phrasing and inflections. We were planning to record two or three tracks maximum per day but we ended up laying down four or five, so that left a bit of time for wining and dining, which I can’t complain about! That’s how ‘easy’ it was; of course the engineers did a lot of hard work with the editing and balancing, but the actual recording before that was by-and-large a pain-free experience!
How involved were the Mantovani family with the recording, and what was their response to it?
DF: They were absolutely at the heart of this whole project, which has been wonderful. Mantovani’s son Kenneth used to work for Decca as an editor, and before we even recorded a note I got in touch with the family to explain what we were thinking of doing and to get their blessing for it. It all culminated in a concert at the London Palladium where Joseph performed some of the arrangements with a live orchestra, and about two or three generations of the Mantovani family came along; afterwards his grandson came to us and said ‘You’ve achieved the impossible - you’ve brought my grandfather’s music back to life’. I think what they appreciated was not just keeping the Mantovani name alive, but also bringing it back in a new way for people to enjoy the quality of the original recordings. I took Joseph to visit them at home in Tunbridge Wells just after he gave that concert, and they brought out all sorts of letters and photos; they’ve got the original discs framed on their dining-room wall, along with the gilt baton I mentioned earlier.
I gather you used a selection of vintage microphones for the recording-sessions?
DF: Yes, though that's really our default rather than a gimmick for this project – wherever possible, we like to use the microphones that became the norm for Decca recording sessions from the late fifties onwards. Decca’s always preserved a set of those microphones and had them maintained and looked after by whichever generation of engineers still possess them. We had a lot of Neumann microphones, like the M49 which you often see in old session photos: the great tenors of the past (like Mario del Monaco, who recorded with Mantovani) used them, as did subsequent generations including Pavarotti.
Then there’s the Neumann U47, which is the long cigar-shaped microphone that all the legendary crooners used: whenever you see session-photos of people like Nat King Cole or Sinatra that’s the mic they’re usually holding. (These are no longer being made, but Peluso do a fantastic replica, which is what we used here). We had an array of three or four mics, and the idea was to get a sound that blended with the original recordings, so we were looking for analogue warmth. But Joseph already has an instrument that's tailor-made for this sort of project, and he’s the one who actually produces the sound – the mics help, but he’s the one with the golden voice!
Joseph, which 'golden voices' of the period inspired you when you were gearing up for this project?
JC: In terms of voices from the 1950s, I love Jussi Björling, Beniamino Gigli, Franco Corelli and Giuseppe di Stefano, but I came at this project from the opposite perspective: Frank Sinatra for Charmaine, and a couple of other similar singers for Cara mia. For the most part these pieces had been done by non-operatic singers trying to produce an operatic sound, which actually made some of the recordings quite painful, but the audiences of the time still loved them! So I thought ‘Well, if a proper operatic voice sings these pieces then the result should be much more organic and natural’. I did listen a lot to Mario del Monaco, who was recording for Decca at the same time as Mantovani; Mantovani also recorded with some of the English opera stars of his day, and again I was surprised that my instincts and inflections coincided for the most part with what he and his fellow singers did fifty years ago. As with any repertoire, though, I try to put my own stamp on the music rather than being excessively indebted to the colleagues who’ve gone before me.
In a sense, this was one of those chances for the singer to play second fiddle to the maestro, and I was very happy to do that – we wanted to keep Mantovani’s original tonality and arrangements without tampering with them, and I didn’t have a problem with going down an octave or singing in a different key if need be, nor did it feel unnatural. Sure, it felt different, but these types of idiosyncrasies make the whole recording process that bit more interesting.
You mentioned having an unexpected amount of down-time thanks to the project going so smoothly – how did you spend that?!
DF: We recorded at Temple Studios on Malta, which is literally ten minutes from Joseph’s front door, and as it’s set in a bay on the north tip of the island he can even sail round in his boat! That was a pretty special setting, so it was wonderful to do a couple of hours in the studio and break for an early lunch…
JC: There was a lot of pleasure mixed in with the work! The first project I did with Dominic was my Verdi album, and I liked him instantaneously, because aside from knowing the repertoire so well he has such a genuine love of singing. When everything’s going smoothly in the studio, you can see the sheer joy that he gets from the process: he’s not someone who’s just clocking in the hours. Decca Records is full of people like that – it’s very rewarding, and it makes the whole process so much easier. We also share a love of wine and whisky, both of which featured in our discussions of this project: he has an impressive collection of single malts which puts mine to shame!