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.