Paul Asciak made his professional debut in 1950 and retired from the stage in 1961, enjoying what seems, according to the notes accompanying this CD, to have been a successful decade of respectable work in the best UK and Italian theatres, appearing alongside some illustrious colleagues. On the strength of the recordings now made available on this CD, it is somewhat baffling that his name is not better known to us, and hugely disappointing that he did not have the opportunity to make commercial recordings during his short career.
Asciak's was a thrilling tenor voice in the Italianate lirico spinto tradition. Although such voices appear to have been less rare in the 1950s than they are now, they were hardly ten a penny, and Asciak stands comparison with the likes of Corelli, Del Monaco, Bergonzi and Di Stefano very well, coming across as no less talented, and very much his own artist.
The quality of sound throughout this disc is variable, and it must be said that much of it is of a standard that will be difficult to tolerate for some listeners, given that the majority of the recordings were made privately for Asciak's own consumption. That said, for record collectors who are less concerned with such issues, it will not be too problematic. Most of the tracks are in fact better in this respect than things like the complete Macbeth with Maria Callas from 1952, to give a widely available and well known example.
Perhaps the best sound quality is to be found on the excerpts from Puccini's La Fanciulla Del West, which is from a BBC Television production, given in English. The disc includes the Act I duet with Minnie, sung very ably and beautifully by Elaine Malbin, and what we know as 'Or son sei mesi' and 'Ch'ella mi creda'. The translation is good, and both singers have clear diction. Asciak's interpretation is vocally very strong with some thrilling high notes and broadly phrased expressions of passion, but also rather more in terms of nuance and finesse than some commercially available accounts of this role.
There is an absolutely beautiful account of 'Nessun dorma' with piano which properly conveys all the tension in the dramatic situation present in the text, and which is capped off with a thrilling, huge top B on the penultimate syllable. Amongst all this heroic singing, Asciak sounds more comfortable than I would have expected in excerpts from the Duke's music in Rigoletto, negotiating the florid flourishes and higher tessitura of 'Questa o quella' more convincingly than some of his better known colleagues. He also gives irresistible renditions of Neapolitan songs such as 'Torna a Surriento' and 'Mamma mia che vo' sape''.
Asciak's greatest stage success was, apparently, when he appeared in the title role of Verdi's Otello in 1960. Unfortunately, no recordings of him in this role exist from during his vocal prime. However, there are excerpts from a one-off performance he gave in a dress rehearsal in 1989 at short notice, almost thirty years after his untimely retirement from the stage. In all seriousness, his vocal prowess scarcely seems to have waned in the intervening years at all, detectable really only in a slight loss of squillo in the middle of the voice. Aided by the fact that the Desdemona of Katarzyna Rymarezyk is quite wonderful, the 'Gia nella notte e densa' is one of the most satisfying I have ever heard, although the atmosphere is a little frenetic given the circumstances, which leads to some loss of musical precision. It is a source of immense frustration that Asciak was not picked to make a studio recording of this opera in his heyday.
As Richard England says in his informative sleeve notes, 'For a record collector to discover a voice, which for all intents and purposes had been considered lost remains an unparalleled thrill.' I cannot speculate as to why Asciak did not ascend to the status of some of his contemporaries during his career. So many factors contribute to a singer's success, and I understand his decision to cease appearing in staged opera was in order to spend more time with his family. In terms of voice, technique and phrasing, he comes across as first class on the basis of these recordings, and I am grateful to MSM for giving us the opportunity to hear this unique and exciting artist, in commemoration of Asciak's eighty-fifth birthday.
By John Woods