Rate These Recordings: The Four Versions of The Student Prince "Serenade"

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Derek McGovern

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Dec 14, 2012, 10:25:33 AM12/14/12
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Joe's persuaded me to revive this series on an occasional basis, so what better song to listen to, evaluate and discuss than The Student Prince "Serenade"? While it's pretty obvious which version of the four that Lanza recorded will be the hands-down favourite, I'm very interested in knowing members' opinions of the other three renditions as well.  

Here's the link to our new "Serenade" page:


As always, I hope members will listen to the recordings, rate them, and then return here to share their thoughts!

Cheers
Derek 
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jora...@gmail.com

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Dec 14, 2012, 9:03:44 PM12/14/12
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Thanks for running another “rate this recording”, Derek. I realize how much work goes into these! Okay, I will give you my impressions of each version in my non-technical, non-musical terms:

·       The Celanese Hour version I find a fresh, young and very lyric Mario in good voice. He seems to be almost over deliberate in his phrasing, singing word by word, being very cautious to avoid any “flubs”. Not the usual seamless flow of lyric as from an older more experienced Lanza. Kind of a disjointed ending but overall, very nice. I awarded it three stars.

·       The “Coke” version was simply too fast even for a coke program. I thought the tempo distracted from the beautiful melody. Also, his voice was “raspy” in places (too many cigarettes?). I rate it at two and a half stars.

·       OMG, what’s not to love in the MGM soundtrack? No singer, including Mario, has ever sung this better! The definitive Serenade. Great color, expression, and perfect cadence. I have always felt this exciting piece was a masterpiece and a song that will always be associated with Mario. Five Stars, hands down!

·       How does any singer, including Mario, compete against the above version? The RCA’ 59 was nevertheless, quite good. His voice was darker and maybe richer but there seemed to be less “joy” in his expression. I rate it as good but at three and a half stars.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

On Friday, December 14, 2012 8:59:46 PM UTC-5, jora...@gmail.com wrote:

Derek McGovern

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Dec 14, 2012, 9:14:21 PM12/14/12
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Many thanks for your detailed comments, Joe. Well written and very interesting! 

I'll chime in with my own thoughts on these recordings a little later in the thread. 

Cheers
Derek 

norma

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Dec 15, 2012, 2:02:23 PM12/15/12
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Dear Derek,
Having listened to all recording,Irated the student Prince1953 recording a masterpiece.I also rated theGreat Moments in Music as excellent.II loved his more operatic high soaring notes.,though it does not have theexpression of the above.The coca cola version is sung too fast and in a kind of throwaway style but I still gave it good.The 1959version sounds tired and though it was a darker voice Mario still reached the top notes so I also gave this good

Best Wishes

Norma

Steff

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Dec 16, 2012, 7:37:54 PM12/16/12
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Hi Derek,
 
Well, the MGM version is undoubtledly outstanding, I even dare to say that it is Mario's best recording ever. Consequently, I gave it top rating. This rendition makes you believe that the song was especially written for Mario.
The song and its singer are one.
 
I agree with Norma that Mario somewhat "hustles" the Coke version so that the recording lacks some emotional aspects (so I gave it only a "good". I understand that there is only one month between the Coke recording session and the soundtrack recording, so it is all the more surprising that the recordings are so different.
I wonder when Mario did start rehearsing for the "Student Prince" soundtrack?
 
In the 1959 version Mario sings quite emotionally, yet his voice just seems too mature for this song (so, again
only a "good" rating).
 
The 1946 version in my opinion comes closest to the soundtrack version, for whatever reason, so I gave it a very
good. Very expressive at this early stage of his career.
 
Steff
 
 
 

leeann

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Dec 17, 2012, 7:58:40 AM12/17/12
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I'm going to ignore the MGM/RCA soundtrack recording for just a minute--it just seems that this is a consummate performance of this song with all the most amazing notes and unsurpassed nuances. Do the The Paul Francis Webster lyrics improve the song? I kind of think so--an update that makes the song more contemporary, and combined with Lanza's delivery, makes it a version that speaks across time. Not a bad idea at all to get rid of the rhythmic interlude of "My soul, my joy, my hope, my dear..." presented differently in both the radio version and the Coke show.

But the others--what fascinating pieces that seem representative of various eras or at least, conditions, of Lanza's recording legacy. Fast, a  little sloppy  a little liberal about sticking (or not sticking) the the actual words though the Coke version may be, it seems to me there's noted change in his presentation--more nuance from the outset than we hear in the early lines of the Celanese Radio Show. It's just that there's not much technique or musicianship to support it.

But the Celanese Hour production--how magnificent his voice! If it were a one-off, a stand-alone version of "Serenade," I'd think it probably enough. He seems to gain momentum as he goes along, hitting an interpretive stride that will only get better over the next few years. By the time of "Oh hear my longing cry" how it soars! If I had heard that on the radio--fan forever.

Then, in 1959--that remake has always stumped me. As Joe points out, could he top his earlier version? No, so , I try to look at as a standalone, but unsuccessfully. He brings a different subtlety to this than to earlier versions; it seems more reflective than full of the exuberance of a present moment.  I don't know what I would think of this, were I not familiar with earlier versions. I really don't.  Best, Lee Ann

leeann

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Dec 17, 2012, 8:23:13 AM12/17/12
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PS--Derek, I forgot to say Thank You for opening "Rate This Recording!" I know it's a great deal of work, but really these comparisons are fascinating and we're fortunate to have these composites of different times, different circumstances--a history of a voice. Best, Lee Ann


George Laszlo

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Dec 17, 2012, 2:27:54 PM12/17/12
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Well, I have now also listened to all four of the recordings and have formed my own biases.

First, to me, none of these deserve the masterpiece designation. I would reserve that for a piece that really brings me to tears (in the good way). Having said that, I believe that the first 1946 recording is the best. This earlier Mario seems fresher and more naive and thus the song is more believable as a love song. Certainly straining is almost absent here. There is also less reliance on embellishment from the orchestra. If I put aside the obvious wobbling of the recording, I can rate this as Excellent.

I think it's also important to remember the reason for the recording. The Celanese and Coca Cola recordings were both from radio broadcasts and thus the singer does not have to worry about appearance or being judged visually. So, these recordings are less self conscious than the film version but do suffer from flat notes and some straining. So, both of these are rated as Good.

The last recording is my least favorite although Mario's voice is the most mature and warmer. Perhaps by this point it was more important to try and impress the audience rather than do justice to the piece. 

Savage

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Dec 17, 2012, 9:27:36 PM12/17/12
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The 1952 version sounds like Mario is in a race with the clock. Vocally o.k., but too hectic a pace.  It ruins the impact of the song.  The 1959 version is impressive and is only diminished by the darkness of the voice and the echo chamber resonance.  Right behind the soundtrack masterpiece is the 1946 version, a fine example of Lanza's beautiful  early voice.

                                                                                                      Dvid

Derek McGovern

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Dec 17, 2012, 10:55:14 PM12/17/12
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Some interesting comments here! 

I don't think it'll surprise anyone who knows me that I regard the MGM recording as a masterpiece. I simply can't imagine this song being more beautifully rendered, and I feel the lush arrangement by Maurice de Packh is the perfect complement to Lanza's poetic phrasing. (Of course, we're in subjective territory here.) I feel it's also the most romantically convincing of Lanza's four versions. George mentioned earlier that he prefers the 1946 version because it strikes him as fresher and more naive, but to me the MGM recording captures a sense of youthful rapture that goes far beyond the earlier performance (as well as being much more vocally assured). 

Like Lee Ann, I also feel that the modified lyrics on the MGM version make the song more contemporary (such creaky lines in the original as "from my window..." are open to parody), though I've met plenty of cynics who've dismissed the words---and the song itself---as pure treacle. (That's their loss, of course!)

Beautiful beyond compare: that's the MGM rendition for me!

I'll chime in with my thoughts on the other three versions a little later. In the meantime, keep those comments rolling in!

Cheers
Derek                  

Lou

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Dec 22, 2012, 8:49:28 PM12/22/12
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Derek wrote: "Beautiful beyond compare: that's the MGM rendition for me!" For me, too, Derek, and for the same reasons. Your very description spells "masterpiece" for me, which is how I rated this version. In fact, it has been my favorite English song since I first heard it in my early teens, even before I knew or cared who Mario Lanza was. 

In my opinion, the MGM recording does not lend itself to comparison with the other three versions because Mr. Webster’s rewritten lyrics make the song a different animal altogether. I daresay that Lanza's delivery would not have been as lyrical, as poetic, or as magical had Ms. Donnelly’s original text been retained. The updated lyrics evoke a vision of young lovers dreamily drifting in a boat on a moonlit river, whereas the original conjure up the classic image of a lovestruck suitor pouring forth his impassioned pleas beneath his beloved's window. (Not very princely, to be sure, but I guess one can always invoke poetic license.)  I would imagine that had the original lyrics been left alone, Lanza’s reading of the song would have been more dramatic, more passionate, more visceral. This, in fact, is how his three other versions strike me, in varying degrees.

I find the 1946 live rendition lacking in nuance and dynamics. I get the feeling that Lanza is just mouthing the words, that they don’t quite reach his heart. But oh, the freshness and the youthfulness, the effortless power and the molten-gold quality of that voice!  I can’t bring myself to rate this performance lower than 3/5. Incidentally, the much older and seasoned Jan Peerce, whom Lanza was subbing for in “Great Moments in Music,” sang this song in 1947. To my ears, his singing is more polished than young Lanza’s, but it, too, lacks dynamic nuances, and unlike Lanza, he drops the final note.

I do not take the annoyingly fast tempo of  the 1952 Coca Cola version against Lanza as it was not within his control. The voice has retained the qualities that I admire in the 1946 performance. The delivery is more secure, polished and nuanced, and he now employs some lovely soft touches, particularly in  “Only you can tell it how, Beloved.”  Easily a 3/5.

In the 1959 recording, Lanza sings the unprincely lyrics in an un-student like voice – dark and sensual. His character is no sheltered prince in the throes of first love but a fully mature man who has found a woman to die for. In my opinion, Lanza’s operatic approach fits the character’s strong emotions like the proverbial glove. I particularly like the part where, powerless to resist his feelings, he unleashes a goose bumps-inducing “Oh, love me or I die!” Both Tauber and Gedda sing this line mezza voce, but I prefer Lanza’s primal scream, which contrasts dynamically with his meltingly tender “Only you can tell it how, Beloved.” (introduced in the 1952 Coca Cola version and perfected here). This and the jaw-dropping high-note ending belie the hint of tiredness in his voice. Taking Lanza’s 1959 rendition out of the Student Prince context, I unhesitatingly and unapologetically give it a 5/5. 

Cheers,
Lou

leeann

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Dec 22, 2012, 11:25:02 PM12/22/12
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Dear Lou, I realized I was nodding my head and thinking, "Exactly, exactly" as I read your post. Thank you for saying things so clearly. I'd gone back, too, and begun listening to others sing this piece--particularly because the 1959 version moved me so deeply, but I was having difficulty extrapolating it from the context of other selections from the 1959 recordings of The Student Prince. I couldn't articulate the impact. You found the right words.

It  was interesting to listen to Jan Peerce's 1947 version in which he's doing the Dorothy Donnelly lyrics. This was one that  really emphasized what a huge difference the poetry of Paul Francis Webster introduces to the flow and meaning of the song.  While I certainly agree that Peerce's version doesn't achieve the nuance of Lanza's, it is beautiful; but a building crescendo, a passion and drama are stalled, even arrested, by the rhythmic interruption of the background chorus and "My soul, my joy, my hope, my dear..."

I have to say, another version I enjoyed listening to from the standpoint of historical interpretation is that of lyric tenor Richard Crooks. While I'm not likely to put it on a personal playlist, the 1930 recording is certainly dated, yet an interesting blend of tracks (I don't know how else to describe it) and he goes for the high note at the end.

But back to Lanza, it's fascinating as you've pointed out, how his versions of "Serenade" are almost microcosmic biographical statements. Best, Lee Ann

Lou

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Dec 23, 2012, 11:04:20 PM12/23/12
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Dear Lee Ann, I'm delighted to know that we are on the same wavelength about Lanza's versions of Serenade. I also enjoyed listening to Richard Crooks's 1930 recording, although I was a bit distracted by the “blending of tracks” in which a second tenor joins him. Incidentally, I've read that Crooks was Romberg's original choice for the role of the prince in the operetta, but that a previous opera commitment prevented the tenor from accepting.

No less than historical performances, I’m also interested in singing-history-in-the- making. One of the contemporary tenors I’m keeping an eye on is the American Charles Castronovo. I don’t think he’s on the radar of most casual listeners yet, but there's a steadily growing international demand for him as a lyric tenor. He sang Romberg’s Serenade at the Proms 2011 and got the biggest ovation from the audience for his “literally heart stopping” performance. Here he is “doing the full Mario,” as one reviewer puts it:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0kltS8g-qj4 

Not exactly a patch on Lanza's singing, but he's no slouch in the looks department, don’t you think? I’m wondering, though, why he chose Donnelly’s over Webster’s lyrics when the theme of the concert was “Hooray for Hollywood.”

Cheers,

Lou

Derek McGovern

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Dec 24, 2012, 11:23:35 PM12/24/12
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What great posts, Lou and Lee Ann! It's such a pleasure to see this discussion going far beyond offering mere ratings (which is what I'd always hoped would happen with these threads). You've both convinced me that it is worth continuing this series, no matter how much certain individuals elsewhere may scoff at our supposedly over-analytical approach.       

Inspired by your posts, I've been listening this morning to a host of tenors from Richard Tauber (shamelessly rolling every one of his "r"s :)), Richard Crooks, Jan Peerce, and James Melton right up to the most recent---Joseph Calleja and Charles Castronovo---and it's fascinating how differently they all interpret the song---and also how they tackle the tricky ending. (Lots of variation there!) One thing that constantly struck me is how difficult this song is to pull off. It's not for the faint-hearted, and I'm sure many a lesser tenor has fallen flat on his face trying to cope with its vocal demands. And I don't just mean the ending---"Oh love me, or I die!," with its high awkward A-flat, is just one of several challenging lines in the song. 

Lou: Castronovo was new to me, and I wish the BBC had been generous enough to share his complete rendition of the song. While his is not the most beautiful (or beautifully produced) of voices to my ears (though I think I prefer his basic sound to, say, Kaufmann's throaty production these days)---and I felt the song was stretching him to the limit---it's an exciting rendition that made me think he'd been listening to Lanza's dramatic 1959 version for inspiration :) For, more than anything else, it reinforced to me how thrillingly Mario's approach on his final rendition would have worked in a stage production of The Student Prince (regardless of whether he sounded too mature by 1959 to be a youthful prince). 

I see, by the way, that Castro has an album of Neapolitan songs coming out next month (Dolce Napoli). It includes the likes of "'Na Sera 'e Maggio," "Come Facette Mammeta," "O Surdato 'Nnammurato," and "Maria Mari'" so I think we can safely say that he's been listening to a certain 1958 Neapolitan album. And, interestingly, he even sings the seldom-heard "Pecche'?, which of course was the first thing that Lanza ever recorded (privately), and is featured on our main site.    

But getting back to Castronovo's rendition of "Serenade," I was amused that he makes up his own words at the end---just as Lanza does! Apparently, the correct final line is "I swear my eternal love," which is what Peerce and co sing, but I have no idea what Castronovo is declaring :) Lanza, on the other hand, sings "I swear my eternal vow" on both his 1946 and 1952 versions, and then "O hear my eternal vow" on his 1959 recording. He also has fun changing one of the words on the line "My soul, my joy, my hope, my fear," curiously singing "dear" instead of "fear" on his 1946 and 1959 versions (which I thought was correct until I checked other singers' renditions). 

Anyway, to cut a longish post short, I completely agree with both of you that Paul Francis Webster's lyrics change the lyrical flow of the song---and for the better. "The willows bending/the stars that shine," for example, undoubtedly flow more beautifully than the choppy "My soul, my joy, my hope, my fear/dear." It's interesting too that Lou found that the MGM version evoked "a vision of young lovers dreamily drifting in a boat on a moonlit river." Although it doesn't occur that way in the film, the original Levien/Ludwig screenplay apparently had the lovers on a boat. And that's according to Lanza himself, as he once excitedly played the recording for Hedda Hopper, explaining in detail how it was to be portrayed on the screen. (Hopper wrote about it in an article in 1953, I believe---I don't have the cutting with me, but I remember thinking that it was one of her best pieces on Lanza.) He was certainly (justly) proud of his MGM Student Prince recordings. 

Anyway, the MGM version remains one of a handful of indisputable Lanza masterpieces, as far as I'm concerned. As for the other Lanza versions, I rated the 1946 version "good" (3/5), though, to be honest, I would have given it 2.5/5 if that option had been available; the Coke version as "poor" (1/5); and the 1959 version as very good (4/5). 

Very briefly, here's why: on the 1946 version, Lanza is obviously tentative (though he gains in confidence towards the end) given that is a live performance, and as a result his phrasing is well below his usual standard for much of the song. Vocally, he's pushing a little too much for my liking---"Oh hear my longing cry!," for example. (This is pre-Rosati after all.) I didn't like the breaking up of "eternal" (e-ter nal) either, though conductor Levin was probably responsible for that. But the voice is gorgeous, and if this had been my introduction to a 25-year-old tenor back in 1946, I'm sure I would have recognized that this young man was going to be a force to be reckoned with.

The Coke performance? The tempo is so ridiculously fast that at one point Mario is more or less speaking the lines, rather than singing them. All impact of the song is lost, as David was pointing out a few posts back. I don't even care much for Lanza's vocal production here. In certain places, he sounds more like a promising amateur than a great singer! Yes, the soft touches are beautiful, but whenever he has to sing in full voice, there's a distinct lack of ring---his voice is simply not resonating the way it should be. I was uncomfortable throughout the rendition; definitely not a good sign! It should never have been released on CD, and thank goodness Derek Mannering has (so far) refrained from recycling it on any of his compilations. (It was Clyde Smith who chose it for its first-ever commercial release in 1993.)  

And the 1959 version? Well, I never used to care much for this rendition---like many others, I initially couldn't accept it for being so different from the MGM version---but once I actually sat down and listened to it on its own terms, I recognized it for what I believe it is: a thrilling dramatic interpretation of the song. It's not perfectly sung, by any means (I wish, for example, that Mario had paid more attention to the flow of lines such as "Nothing is heard but the song of a bird"), but in its best moments it's alternately touching ("Only you can tell it how...Beloved"---both times he sings this line), and, as Lou wrote, goosebump-inducing. Above all, Lanza is clearly living the song; I never get the sense that he's a tired man going through the motions here (as I do on, say, the 1959 Christmas Carols). In fact, he's so committed to the words that, yes, there is something decidedly primal about it, as Lou also pointed out. Great ring in the voice too in all the important places. Definitely a recording to be blasted through the speakers when one is in need of catharsis :)       

Cheers
Derek          

Lou

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Dec 25, 2012, 9:03:23 AM12/25/12
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Hi Derek: You wrote: Castronovo was new to me, and I wish the BBC had been generous enough to share his complete rendition of the song.

Here's a link to the complete rendition:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SAUiP1kzD1o

Cheers,
Lou

Derek McGovern

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Dec 26, 2012, 12:45:04 AM12/26/12
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Thank you, Lou!

Yes, it is a fine rendition, and I especially liked his handling of "Oh hear my longing cry." 

Curiously, he also sings "dear" rather than "fear" on the line "My soul, my joy, my hope, my fear," and in yet another similarity with Lanza, he sings "For you know to my life you are love" (which actually makes more sense) rather than "For you know through my life you are loved." What are the correct lyrics, I wonder?! Calleja, for example, in both his recording and his CD booklet of his recent Lanza tribute, sings the latter version (and "fear"). 

Yes, it's strange that Castronovo didn't choose the Paul Francis Webster version of the lyrics, given the circumstances. Then again, Calleja reverts to the original Donnelly lyrics as well, despite the fact that his Decca team was keen for him to copy the arrangements that Lanza used wherever possible. (They actually contacted me at one point last year, and I suggested they approach Teldec for the MGM arrangement of "Serenade," since Carreras had used it on his 1993 Lanza tribute album for that label.) 

As far as I know, the only other singers who have recorded the Webster version of "Serenade" are Carreras and Vincenzo la Scola (and possibly Toni Dalli, who put out a tribute album shortly after Lanza's death).

Cheers
Derek            

leeann

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Dec 28, 2012, 6:44:53 PM12/28/12
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Hi, Lou, I've just been wandering through Castronovo on YouTube. Besides previous comments, it seems to me he and John Wilson negotiate the Donnelly lyrics with less of an abrupt departure from the flow than many others! He's new to me, and I, too,  I really, really like his basic sound. I hope he's history-in-the-making indeed. To my not-so-schooled ear he sounds as if he's on his way to a prime, but not quite there yet.  And a propos of his forthcoming album, one fan has, in fact, posted a series of his Neapolitan songs from a 2010 performance (as well as an earlier version of Core n'grato  with Placido Domingo at the piano, no less!). Interesting listening!

As an aside, I have to wonder if performing at any Proms event isn't terrifically satisfying for the performers not only because of the prominence and prestige, but because the tremendous enthusiasm and engagement of audiences is amazing. Terrific!  Best, Lee Ann

Derek McGovern

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Jul 25, 2022, 11:05:58 AM7/25/22
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Given that Lanza's 1959 version of "Serenade" from The Student Prince is featured on the new (2022) Sepia Records CD The Electrifying Mario Lanza in the best reproduction yet released, I thought that this would be an opportune time to revisit this thread.

Here is the link to Lanza's four versions of "Serenade," and I urge anyone who has never appreciated his final (April 1959) rendition to reconsider it. (An excellent reproduction is now available.) You may be surprised!

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