Gavin Friday salutes ‘Ave Maria’ as performed by Alessandro Moreschi

HIS is quite an old piece of music – it was recorded in 1902, in Vatican City, when the singer was 82. The fact that it’s the last person castrated for the Pope, pretty much at the end of his life, gives it a surreal edge for me. It sounds like what Tom Waits would want to be doing today. It’s very crackly, recorded into one mike, with piano and violin accompaniment. It’s like a cross between Aled Jones and Quentin Crisp. There’s a nervousness about him – the Pope was probably present – which means he bends notes and warbles. He goes for the top note but he gets it all wrong. Imagine this cracking, old man’s voice straining away . . . and the air of the song itself is so tragic and melodramatic. But he does get there in the end. The violin is tracking the vocal, trying to reach and follow it. It’s a very frail voice, beautifully high, but it sounds like a creature from another planet. It reminds me of the bit in Eraserhead where the girl is singing and all those abortions are dropping on her head. Knowing he died shortly afterwards gives it even more of an edge. Here’s this old man trying to sing it the way he was taught, giving his all for the church with his last breath.

Available on the album The Last Castrato (OPALCD 9823)