Reissued: Ricordi’s First Record, ‘Medea’

Bertelsmann, Archivio Storico Ricordi, and Sonopress are releasing a limited vinyl edition of a record that has made (music) history in several ways. Today marks the re-release of a 1958 recording of Cherubini’s “Medea” at La Scala in Milan, featuring Maria Callas in the title role. The new collector’s edition is limited to 500 copies.

The opera being performed is 223 years old. The singer, who died in 1977, would have soon celebrated her 100th birthday. The recording was made 62 years ago. Yet, at least among professionals and aficionados, the 1958 recording of Cherubini’s “Medea” at Milan’s legendary La Scala with the no less legendary Maria Callas in the title role has never gone out of date. And for the music publisher Ricordi, it will always mark a very special moment: as the first record released by the “Dischi Ricordi” label, it represented the publisher’s entry into the record business. Now, the Archivio Storico Ricordi in Milan, which is part of Bertelsmann’s Corporate Communications, Bertelsmann, and Sonopress are re-issuing the vinyl record in a joint project. In a limited edition of 500 copies. The special edition can be purchased via the website  .
The 1958 recording of Luigi Cherubini’s opera “Medea”– with Maria Callas in the title role and the famous Italian conductor Tullio Serafin at the podium of the La Scala orchestra in Milan – has been reissued several times, but only on CD in recent decades.

This record as prime example of combining entrepreneurship and creativity

The idea was conceived to mark the 150th anniversary of Casa Ricordi in 1958 and was originally intended to be a stand-alone project, but from the very beginning it was also intended to set new standards. Until then, Casa Ricordi had stayed out of the record market, which was heavily dominated by U.S. companies at the time. Its business consisted mainly of printing, popular graphics, and, of course, the music publishing operations with branches all over the world. However, the Milanese publishers couldn’t conceive of immortalizing music, especially classical music, on phonogram, and the triumphal march of the vinyl record in the first years after the Second World War initially took place without Ricordi.

That was to change with the “Medea” recording: The young Carlo Emanuele Ricordi (known as Nanni) was the spiritus rector behind the project. A great-grandson of the legendary Giulio Ricordi, he had worked for several years for the Victor record label in the U.S., where he had gained experience and technical expertise. For the recording he had the latest technical equipment from the Mercury music label shipped from New York to Milan and supervised the entire production himself. The result was a recording that enjoys an astonishing reputation and visibility to this day, partly, of course, due to the legendary Maria Callas in the role of Medea. This helped the opera, which was still rather unknown at the time, achieve its real breakthrough.

The record was launched at Casa Ricordi’s big anniversary party in October 1958, with the diva herself in attendance. It was such a success that after just nine months another record containing only the arias was released. This, too became a huge hit (unfortunately, the exact sales figures are not available). After the success of the Medea record, Nanni systematically expanded record production at Casa Ricordi. The Dischi Ricordi label not only produced recordings of classical operas in the following years, but also focused on popular Italian folk music. Numerous “cantautori” including Giorgio Gaber, Gino Paoli, Luigi Tenco, Ornella Vanoni, Enzo Jannacci, Lucio Battisti and many others found their musical home here. Casa Ricordi once again rewrote Italian cultural history, as it had done a century earlier when the Ricordi founding fathers discovered the composers Rossini, Donizetti, and Verdi.

The reprint

The new edition’s cover and box (with three LPs) are based on the historical model. For the reprint project, Casa Ricordi, which today works separately from the archive within the Vivendi/Universal group, provided the rights free of charge. For more detailed information, a Zoom conference produced by the Ricordi archive – in which the musicologist Gabriele Dotto, the cultural sociologist Dominik Bartmanski, and the journalist and Callas expert Andrea Penna discuss the historical context as well as the opportunities opened up by reissuing such an iconic recording in today’s music market – can be watched here.