Two recordings of Don Juan

I admit this is an eccentric project. Recording a very long poem from the early 19th century and presenting it in an illustrated e-book ‘wrapper’ may turn out to be a waste of effort. Who knows? Not me!

But I suspect there is a large number of people who have never been exposed to Byron’s clever, provocative romance and who are not likely to find out how much fun it is until they hear it. That’s what led me to record it in the first place and, so far there are going on 90,000 downloads of my recordings of Cantos One, Five and Thirteen-thru-Sixteen suggesting I was right.

I know of only two commercial “audio-book” recordings of Don Juan, both in the Audible library. In this post, I’ll review both of them. In my next post I’ll review a much better, but incomplete, (now) widely available recording from a great star of Hollywood’s Golden Era and submit my own recordings for your comparison.

The only two commercial recordings in the Audible library are:

Fred Davidson has great variation in pitch and manages female voices very well. He has good pacing and very clear diction. But I find his delivery mannered and “thespian.” To me, this makes Byron’s conversational tone of voice sound condescending and even ‘fey’ rather than confidential or sarcastic.

Davidson makes some strange choices in pronunciation, too, of which the worst is that he pronounces “Juan” as “huwan”… a compromise between the Spanish pronunciation and Byron’s jokey anglicising of the hero’s name. The result is a sound that isn’t right in Spanish (“h’wan”) or as an anglicised word (it must be pronounced “who won” for the rhyme to be accurate) and it ruins Byron’s joke.

But most irritating of all, in the Davison recording, he (or his producer) has decided that he should read everything on the page including the Stanza numbers! Good grief, we’re lucky he didn’t give us pages, too!

Of course, you should judge for yourself. Here’s a short sample of Davidson reading three verses, taken from the beginning of the Poem: the Dedication. You can find a longer sample at the links above.

Robert Bethune may be a Canadian. He has that attractive Canadian burr to his accent that I prefer to Frederick Davidson’s nasal English tone. But Bethune’s delivery is clipped; somehow slightly choked in his throat and he has a rhotacism (swallowing his ‘r’) that is sometimes noticeable. He sounds like he’s sitting at his desk leaning over the microphone.

Bethune’s pitch is not as varied, and his pacing not as sure as Davidson’s, with the result that he falls a bit too easily into a “poetic” intonation, singing the same pattern of tones throughout each verse. His pronunciation is not mannered like Davidson’s and he takes advantage of the conversational tone of the poem to allow each line and each stanza to “flow” into the next. But this also means he muffs some of the jokes that Byron often packs into the final rhyming-couplet punch line of his stanzas.

Again, you should listen for yourself. Here are three verses (28-30) from Canto IV: a longer excerpt can be found at the Audible link, above. I have not listened to much of Bethune’s recording but I’m a little surprised to find that this short selection contains an error: “dear” for “clear” in Stanza 30.

I would really like to hear your views of these recordings: especially if you disagree with me. What am I missing in the Davidson and Bethune recordings? If you love them (or even like them), why? Please let me know.

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Byron fan (not fanatic); poetry lover (not tragic); doctor of melancholia (not gloom).

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