A Note from Ward Marston

Félia Litvinne was a large woman with a persona and voice to match. She sang with bold dramatic gestures which, combined with the sheer power of her voice, proved both an advantage and a liability in the making of recordings. Hers was one of the most powerful and penetrating female voices to have been captured by the early gramophone. As we listen to her records, we are squarely confronted both with the glories and the flaws of her amazing vocal instrument, and there is no doubt that we are hearing a completely individual voice driven by intense musical and dramatic conviction. The unfortunate problem with her records is that Litvinne's voice was far too powerful for the mechanical limitations of the acoustic recording process. Her huge fortissimi usually caused the recording equipment to overload the grooves of the wax master. This problem was further compounded each time the record was played on the primitive gramophones of the day. If the needle was not changed after each record, it would have only taken a few playings before the record was completely ruined. Over the past 15 years, I have been searching the great collections of the world to find superior copies of Litvinne's records and I have come to the conclusion that it would practically be a miracle to find unplayed copies of records this old. Therefore, we have to do the best we can with the sources we possess. In the following paragraphs, I will discuss the mechanical flaws in Litvinne's records together with what I have tried to do to improve their listenability.

Within the span of nine years, Félia Litvinne recorded for three major companies: Gramophone and Typewriter (1902—1903), Pathé Frères (ca. 1904), and Fonotipia/Odeon (1904—1911). Most of Litvinne's recordings are impossible to date with any degree of accuracy since the pertinent recording data have all been lost. Litvinne's first session for G & T can be approximately placed at late 1902 and in this case, there is evidence pointing toward the specific date of 29 December. In a letter from Alfred Clark, the director of the French branch of G & T, dated 22 December 1902, he states, “I believe she is going to sing next Monday.” “She” refers to Litvinne and “next Monday” would be 29 December 1902.1 Litvinne's accompanist, on this occasion, was the young Alfred Cortot, who had already begun to make a name for himself as a consummate pianist and conductor. This recording session yielded eight published ten-inch sides all of which exhibit an obvious rapport between these two great artists. These recordings contain some of Litvinne's greatest singing, but sadly, they are mechanically defective. These discs are extremely noisy, which could be due either to improper cutting or defective processing at the plating and pressing stage. Unfortunately, this high noise level does not improve by trying a variety of stylus sizes. An even more egregious flaw in these discs is a prominent pitch waver caused by instability in the mechanism that drove the cutting turntable. This problem afflicts most French G & Ts from this period and strangely, it was not corrected until about 1905. This speed fluctuation particularly affects the piano, which takes on a most unsettling quality. Until fairly recently, there was no way to compensate for this defect. Within the past few years, engineer Dimitrios Antsos has developed a method by which a computer can analyze a recording and compensate for shifts in pitch. Dimitrios has achieved miraculous results with pitch-defective solo piano recordings and we asked him to attempt restoration of these Litvinne recordings. Using the piano as a paradigm, he has made a major improvement in these records.

These discs are among the very rarest of early recordings but I have been fortunate to have had access to several copies of all but one of these incredibly elusive recordings. The Harold “Berceuse” (1361F) proved to be the most difficult to locate and the one available copy was only marginally satisfactory. In remastering this first Litvinne session, I have employed a slight application of digital noise reduction to help bring the music into the foreground. I could have attenuated the noise further but this would have seriously compromised both voice and piano.

Litvinne's second session for G & T probably took place during late 1903. She remade all eight of the titles previously recorded and added two new ones on 12-inch discs. A photograph taken during this session would indicate that Cortot is not the accompanist here, though his name does appear on some of the record labels. As you listen to this group of recordings, you can hear that Litvinne and her accompanist are somewhat more subdued than on the earlier recordings. These recordings are more successful from a sonic standpoint but they also contain the previously mentioned pitch waver. I was able to locate two or three copies of each of these discs except for Rubinstein's “Noch” which I only found once.

Litvinne's Pathé recordings were made in Paris probably in 1904. Catalogues indicate that ten selections were issued but sadly, only five are known to exist. Among these, there are three selections that she had not already recorded. Before proceeding, perhaps I should offer a brief explanation of Pathé's recording and duplication method. Pathé made its recordings on large wax cylinders which were then mechanically re-recorded to various sizes of discs and cylinders for commercial release. This allowed the company to issue the same recordings in both disc and cylinder formats. In the case of Litvinne's recordings, they were first issued as three-inch diameter cylinders and shortly thereafter as nine and one-half-inch, single-faced etched label discs which begin at the center playing outward. During the late teens, four of the five selections were re-issued as 11 and one-half-inch paper label discs which play from the outside inward. These later versions turn up far more often than the earlier cylinders and discs but unfortunately, the vocal announcement and first few notes of the piano accompaniment were omitted. The early disc and cylinder issues of these recordings are highly elusive but over the past 15 years, I have managed to acquire all five selections in both formats. Comparing all of my sources, I found that the discs sounded superior to the cylinders except for the “Church Scene” fragment from Faust. Therefore, Tracks 19, 20, and 21 were transferred from early center start discs and Track 22 was transferred from a cylinder. For Track 23, I used the announcement and opening bars of the introduction from a cylinder and the remainder from a paper-label outside-start disc. Considering the fact that these recordings are acoustic dubbings, the sound is remarkably vivid with Litvinne in particularly good voice.

In 1904 or 1905, Félia Litvinne recorded five sides in Paris for the Fonotipia label, comprising four operatic arias (new to her recorded repertoire) and Schumann's “Ich grolle nicht,” this time sung in German. The operatic sides are available both as original pressings and as 1930s Odeon reissues pressed from the metal masters on superior shellac. The present transfers were made from these quiet Odeon pressings. Schumann's “Ich grolle nicht,” on the other hand, only surfaced in the late 1990s and exists in one known pressing. The sound on this disc is much more primitive than the other four sides which is perplexing since its matrix number falls in sequence with the others. Here, Litvinne's voice is strangely thin and one gets the impression that the diaphragm apparatus was malfunctioning. An additional anomaly is that the pianist was obviously instructed to play only in the upper half of the keyboard giving the accompaniment a surreal tinkling sound. This occurs on some, but not all Paris Fonotipia recordings, and we can only be grateful that Litvinne's other four sides are among the best sounding Fonotipias from this period.

Five years were to pass before Félia Litvinne would make her final group of records, this time for French Odeon. They were probably recorded in two sessions sometime during 1910 and 1911, all with orchestral accompaniment. These dates are derived from extensive research by Christian Zwarg. Among the seven published sides, there are four titles which she had not previously recorded. In order to place the two arias from Le Trouvère together, the Carmen “Habanera” is out of chronological sequence. These seven Odeon sides possess a smooth natural sound and Litvinne's voice is well-balanced against the orchestra. There are a few fortissimo notes where Litvinne may have been too close to the recording horn causing excruciating blasts of distortion. By a careful choice of styli and some computerized de-noising, I have attempted to attenuate these distorted passages.

For many years, I have wanted to reissue Félia Litvinne's recordings but because of the technical challenges involved, I was hesitant. I also hoped that, by waiting, the five missing Pathé titles would somehow come to light. It never occurred to me, however, that a fifth Fonotipia side would magically appear. Now that we have been able to make significant progress in stabilizing the pitch for early French G & Ts, I felt that it was time to try my hand at a Litvinne reissue project. In remastering this edition, I have taken a slightly more interventionist approach than is usual for me. With the advances in digital restoration technology that we have seen in the past five years, I decided to use a judicious amount of digital de-noising on the G & T and Pathé recordings in order to give Litvinne's voice a degree of consistency with her later Fonotipia and Odeon discs. Félia Litvinne was one of the most feted singers of her time and I hope that this reissue of her recordings will help to preserve her inimitable artistry and acquire for her a new generation of admirers.


1 Alan Kelly, His Master's Voice/La Voix de son Maitre (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1990), 644