Probably the most famous Italian baritone of the 19th century, and certainly the most spectacularly
successful voice teacher of all times, Cotogni made only one official record, the duet song I mulattieri with
Francesco Marconi, in 1908, at 77 years old.
And then there is the series of private recordings made by G & T in 1903 at the holiday home of Francesco Tamagno in Ospedaletti (Liguria): one of them is a duet of Tamagno and an unnamed baritone
(Sì pel ciel), two are baritone solos, again unnamed (Promesse de mon avenir, in Italian, and a little-known song by
Gastaldon, Ti vorrei rapire).
Who is singing on those three matrices has been the topic of endless speculations. I think it was Edward J. Smith who came up
with the idea that it be Cotogni; many years later, various experts dismissed that theory stating there was little
evidence that Tamagno and Cotogni knew each other well, and that Cotogni lived in Rome, some 650 kilometers from Ospedaletti,
so why should he have been present at Tamagno's cottage? The new theory hence was that the mysterious singer was Tamagno's
brother Giovanni, a baritone who made a minor career as a comprimario. This theory prevails today. Other conjectures cited
Domenico Tamagno (another brother) as the singer, or Giovanni Albinolo (whom some contemporaries thought to be an illegitimate
son of Francesco Tamagno), or Henri Berriel (who was a proven Tamagno acquaintance and helped Tamagno stipulate his G & T
It amazes me no end how absolutely tone-deaf many people are in spite of spending much of their time with operatic recordings.
Everybody, really everybody who has ever written on those mysterious 1903 recordings definitely belongs into the "tone-deaf"
category... In fact, tone-deaf is not enough; you must be literally deaf to think that all three baritone recordings in question
have been sung by the same person. From the first to the last bar, it's completely obvious that the baritone in Sì pel
ciel in distinct from the one in O casto fior and Ti vorrei rapire. The two solo recordings have been made by an audibly aged
singer with supreme stilistic authority, an excellent top, a remarkably veiled tone, and an occasional hint to hoarseness
towards the end of the breath (no doubt a result of his age). Tamagno's Iago, on the other hand, has a robust, reasonably
young, very forward voice, and is a terrible singer who hardly gets through the piece, omitting several bars, coming in too
late after that, grossly marring his tune twice (just as if he had never before heard the duet), and above all, he is
regularly off-pitch in a most painful way.
So we're looking for two anonymous baritones, not one; and I'll readily believe that Tamagno's duet partner was his brother
Giovanni, that baritone's performance certainly sounds like that of a provincial comprimario. The other baritone, however, the
one who sang the two solo recordings, is anything but a comprimario; these are performances of world-class stylistic wisdom,
and with a marvelous technique that saves the singer from any peril that his clearly deteriorated voice would otherwise
inevitably bring about.
Another person that we can safely exclude is Domenico Tamagno: he was a tenor who had tried a solo career, just briefly and
decades earlier; he may be the Tamagno brother who, as a result of stage fright, sang as a chorister only (if it wasn't him, it
must have been Giovanni). Henri Berriel can only have been proposed for biographical reasons, but certainly not based on
any sonic evidence: his voice is totally different, much more backward (which is another thing than veiled), with a marked vibrato. Giovanni Albinolo
is, perhaps together with Domenico Tamagno, the weirdest of all theories: he was a very fine singer, and he actually did record
O casto fior, but apart from the tune and text, his and the anonymous 1903 recording have absolutely nothing in common.
So we are back to square one: among the theories brought forward, Cotogni is the only viable one. It's always advisable to
meet claims made by Edward J. Smith with healthy suspicion, but at least, he was not tone-deaf: the vocal, technical and
stylistic similarities between O casto fior and Ti vorrei rapire on the one hand and the proven and tested Mulattieri
recording on the other are striking. Of course, you don't get a complete picture of a singer of whom you have but one
certified record, so I don't exclude the possibility that the two anonymous discs were sung by some other baritone, who would
have had to be a very close resemblance to Cotogni, however. Perhaps the most valid objection against the Cotogni theory is
that the voice on the 1903 recordings sounds older than on the 1908 Mulattieri recording; on the other hand, everybody knows that
the older singers get, the more varies their vocal form from one day to another. So as long as no better suggestion has been
made, I'll still consider the "anonymous" baritone of the O casto fior and Ti vorrei rapire recordings to be Cotogni. As for
the practicalities, maybe he spent his holiday in Ospedaletti in 1903 by pure chance, I don't know and don't frankly care. I
listen to the voice and follow my ears.