Performers: Alessandro Moreschi, chorus of the Sistine Chapel, Roman Chorus of Choristers
Playing time: 52'50
Recording date: 1902, 1904
Castrati were a unique phenomenon in Western musical history, lasting from the late 16th c. to the mid-19th century. The practice of castrating young boys and training them for singing was never approved by the Church but authorities turned a blind eye; only the conquest of the Papal States by Italy in 1870 put an end to the practice. Alessandro Moreschi (1858-1922) entered the Sistine Chapel in 1883 and became conductor of the Choir in 1898. He is the only castrato to have ever been recorded; he retired in 1913.
The quality of the recording is as one would expect from those years. The music that was recorded is not terribly interesting either. All the composers on the program (except Victoria, Palestrina and Mozart) are 19th century composers. The value of the recording is its uniqueness. The voice is clearly in the soprano range. It is not a great voice, and the technique is either bad or marred by the habits of the time (in particular an abundance of portamento and scoops in the attacks of notes, which can be excruciating). But its timbre is very striking, with the ambiguity that one expects, and it is most intriguing in the high notes.
One should not, however, look at this recording as evidence on the castrati of the 18th century. Moreschi was as far from Farinelli as we are from, say, Rossini. The last castrato to sing on stage, Velutti, had retired 30 years before Moreschi's birth. As his repertoire and technique show, he belongs to the world of late 19th century religious music, not Baroque opera. Whether due to the recording technique or (more likely) to Moreschi's own voice, one learns nothing about the phenomenal strength, agility and holding power that were celebrated qualities of operatic castrati. What remains from this recording is a haunting quality of voice that is clearly unlike anything else.
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