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16 October 2012

Fernando Valero (1854-1914) Rare recording previously thought lost

The rarest item in the recent donation of rare discs from Martin James Gordon Moir was undoubtedly a single sided shellac disc of the Spanish tenor Fernando Valero.  Because Valero only made a handful of discs for the Gramophone & Typewriter Company (probably only six sides) on 16th June and 15th July 1903, his discs are highly sought after – but the one donated to The British Library is of even greater interest because even though allotted a catalogue number and printed label, it is thought by collectors to be unpublished.  Indeed, Valero’s entry on Spanish Wikipedia claims that this recording of Mattinata by Tosti ‘appears to be “lost”’.


From 1880 Valero sang in Italy and appeared on the great opera stages of the world including Berlin, Lisbon, New York, Chicago and London while in 1885 he sang the role of Werther at La Scala.  However, the role he became most identified with was that of Don José in Bizet’s Carmen which he first performed in St Petersburg in 1884. 

Valero as Don Jose in Bizet's Carmen

Valero retired in 1902 and settled in St Petersburg where he died in 1914.

Cavalleria Rusticana (Mascagni)

The recording of Mattinata was transferred at 77 rpm with the music sounding in the key of A flat major as this sounds the most plausible pitch.

GRAMOPHONE MONARCH 052022 playback




One of the most important discoveries ever of recorded history, And so good that the Library has made it available. So many important discoveries are kept under lock and key and remain in essence lost. Valero's style harks back to a different (pre-verismo) era - despite this record's being made at the end of his career, that style, with its deftly executed grupetti is still very apparent. The finding of this recording is so exciting - it is not just the collector "ticking off a catalogue number" on a list; it adds to our knowledge.

To add: This recording as presented here is in the key of A flat, playing at 77rpm. First; it is very unusual (though not unknown) for recordings of this period to play so “fast.” It is usual to find records playing (at score pitch) at 70, 71,or 73 rpm. Second: this Tosti song was (and is) available in at least two keys (for bass, baritone, soprano/tenor). I see from all the published soprano/tenor sheet music (dating from 1900 to date) that the key is G (major) – a semitone down from the song as presented here. Whilst upward transposition is not unknown, I can see no reason why Valero should do it. Maestro Cottone at the piano is notorious as being particularly inept at transposition “in running” (see the recordings of the tenor De Lucia); here Cottone seems (for once) quite confident and accurate in his playing.

An aesthetic problem is that to play this recording a semitone down (at around 73rpm) at times seems “too much” with subtle distortion of certain vowels and sluggish rhythm. A further problem is that the recording turntables of the day commonly slowed or quickened as the side progressed – sometimes this was gradual and regular, sometimes it was erratic. If the pitch rise or drop is regular then it is a relatively easy task (now we have computers) regularly and constantly to adjust the pitch so that the record plays in the correct pitch (more or less) throughout

The solution is probably heretical! As Henstock has noted we cannot know at which pitch the piano (or indeed Valero!) was tuned. The “standard” has changed since 1903 (according to Henstock) by up to a semitone. The solution may be to reduce the speed by say 2rpm (around a quarter tone ). This is course puts the “Mattinata” recording “in-between” pitch. To those with absolute pitch the result must be excruciating – but then again most old recordings must be excruciating to those cursed with absolute pitch!

The result of a semitone or even a quarter tone downward transposition is surprisingly dramatic for this "Mattinata." The voice is less white (if appearing a little frailer). For Symposium another Valero recording (“El amor es la vida”) was transcribed in a key which produces much the same timbre as found when Mattinata is transposed downwards. That said, “El Amor” sounds perfectly acceptable a semitone up! Finally, another Valero recording is of the “Siciliana” from “Cavalleria Rusticana” an aria which is commonly transposed down a semitone – even by the best of tenors, It would seem very unusual for Valero not to have followed what might be called a tradition (especially given his age and frailty – the man was recovering from tuberculosis – if recovery was ever possible at that period!). With such a transposition, the “Siciliana” sounds slightly darker, and more natural – again it is similar in timbre to the instant transposed “Mattinata.”

I am of the opinion that this “Mattinata” sounds better played around a quarter tone down, (about 97.5% if you have a computer program that allows such fiddling); but I freely admit that we shall probably never know if that is correct!

At “score-pitch” or a quarter/semitone above, Valero still remains one of the most fascinating artists of the period and certainly one of the most endearing – it is just that he seems more human (in my view) when his records are played a little slower.

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