A singer who won the sobriquet "The King of Baritones" and was admired by Verdi hardly needs my endorsement; I would merely urge any lover of the voice to gain some acquaintance with this aristocrat among baritones if you want to hear what technique is all about. Battistini, like Caruso's tenor coeval Bonci, represents a link between the modern age of singing and a previous tradition virtually now lost, whereby grace and refinement were prized above the more overt, histrionic qualities required of a verismo singer. This is not to say that his performances are dramatically inert or simply about beauty of sound; he had a marvellous ability to colour his voice and inject emotion into his singing - but it was all based on impeccable technique of a kind which allowed him to sing beautifully for fifty years. In this regard, his nearest rivals are Caruso's regular partners, Antonio Scotti and Giuseppe De Luca, both of whom had similarly elegant baritones and enjoyed long careers in whch the quality of their voices barely deteriorated and the vibrations did not loosen - in direct contrast to such flamboyant and meteoric singers as Amato and Ruffo, whose more forceful and superficially thrilling style of singing caused them to pay the price relatively early on in their careers. While my heart still thrills to the latters' give-it-all-you-got commitment, my head tells me that Battistini's is the more sane and ultimately more artistic approach.
The hallmarks of his style are an exquisite control over the messa di voce, an extraordinarily long-breathed line, perfect legato and unfailing beauty of tone - and he could turn his vocal gifts to a wide variety of musical styles, as this Romophone collection illustrates: Italian song, Mozart, French and Russian opera, later Verdi, Wagner and, of course and above all, bel canto opera by such as Bellini. However, it seems that he sang all of those almost exclusively in Italian, just occasionally singing in French - an odd self-limitation this, to modern listeners used to totally adaptable, Protean, international jet-setting singers. Rhythmically, he is wilful and all over the shop in a way that modern conductors would not tolerate, but that was the accepted style then, and it can pay artistic dividends if you can accept the liberties he takes with the score.
This first volume of recordings made between 1902 and 1911 was sadly never complemented by the projected second volume covering Battistini's later recordings; however that gap can be filled by buying volume 2 of the Lebendige Vergangenheit issue of Battistini. The sound in these early acoustic recordings is inevitably primitive but the remastering is good and permits us to hear clearly why Battistini was regarded as a vocal miracle; no singer since has displayed such a complete mastery of technique. Anyone studying voice needs to listen to him and try to imitate his method. As you can hear from his recording of Tonio's "Si può" from "I Pagliacci", when, following an older score and tradition, he drops briefly at the end into parlando for "Il concetto vi dissi", his singing voice, despite its power and resonance, is "simply" (sic) a natural extension of his speaking mode, and it is that combination of naturalness and artistry which lends his voice its peculiarly immediate quality, both other-worldy and utterly of the moment.