Claudia Muzio had a patchy recording career. She made her first recordings in 1911 when she was around 21 (there is some doubt as to her year of birth), an aria and a duet, then from 1917 to 1918 she recorded plentifully for Pathé. In the early 1920s she made recordngs for Edison, but then there was nothing between 1924 and 1934 when she made what are her most famous recordings for Columbia. It would seem that the years of her greatest glory were probably when she was performing in Chicago in the early 1930s, and this is precisely the time she was silent to the gramophone. The Columbias were made a couple of years before her early death from an unspecified illness in 1936, when she was not in the best of health or in very happy circumstances.
Save for the 1911 recording of Si, mi chiamano Mimi (the first recording made by Muzio) this issue concentrates on the recordings on the Columbias. Occasionally we are aware this is not a voice in perfect health, of a shortness of breath and the inability to swell the tone at climaxes, but the voice is still unfailingly lovely and, in any case, what really singles her out is her interpretive ability. She brings something personal to all that she does. One sees the face and every fleeting change of expression. These are the qualities that make Muzio special.
Even in that very first recording of Mimi’s Si mi chiamano Mimi, though the artistry is still unformed, one registers a change of expression when she sings the phrase ma quando vien lo sgelo. Already she is doing more than simply singing the notes. That said, coming, as it does, at the end of all the later recordings, one also notes how much she developed in the interim, as we actually have a direct comparison with her 1935 version of the aria, an altogether more detailed and moving rendition.
Lauri-Volpi described her voice as one “made of tears and sighs and restrained inner fire” and certainly some of the most famous tracks here are the tearfully emotional ones, like her Addio del passato, the letter reading almost unbearably moving, the aria almost more felt than sung, though, as noted by Callasinanaplus below, a little too much of the verismo soprano’s emphasis on external declamation, creeps into her delivery. A true bel canto soprano, like Callas, creates as great an effect by working within the musical framework.
Predictably then it, is the tragic verismo arias that make the greatest effect, but she could also smile and charm, as she proves in the the delightful Bonjour, Suzon and Les filles de Cadiz. But hardly a track passes without some distinction. I only wish room had been found for Donaudy’s O del mio amato ben, a Muzio speciality, sung without sentimentality or mawkishness, but beautfully shaded and phrased so that the song emerges as a mini masterpiece.
If you don’t know Muzio’s work, I urge you to right that wrong.