There was a crackle and a hiss and collector Bill Breslin's recording of the high-pitched voice of Alessandro Moreschi - the only recorded castrato - filled the room. His solo 'Ave Maria' by Gounod, recorded in 1904 in the Vatican, where he was conductor of the choir, is one of the earliest and rarest 78 rpm discs.
To an unaccustomed ear, the voice sounds wavering and full of sobs, as well it might. But this was due to the near-forgotten technique of inserting grace notes, not girlishness. The most astonishing thing about the voice is that, although it rises to high B, it remains unmistakably masculine.
Although re-recordings of Moreschi (1858-1922) are available on CD, collectors still pay £140 or more for fine copies of that old 78. Recorded by the legendary Gramophone and Typewriter Company - 'G&T' to collectors - its Canto Gregoriano label was enthusiastically suggested by the popular Pope Leo XIII, despite his having forbidden the choir to take on any more castrati two years earlier, in 1902.
The pope's edict finally discouraged poor families from castrating 10-year-old boys in the hope of making money, and consigned to history the feting of castrati during their heyday between 1650-1750 - when an estimated 4,000 boys a year were mutilated in response to the Vatican's strict interpretation of St Paul's words 'Let women be silent in churches'.
Moreschi finished, Breslin selected one of the first recordings of the great Enrico Caruso, made in 1902, from the 10,000 discs lining the walls of his home in Fife, Scotland - and tipped the coveted Zonophone-labelled record lovingly from its cardboard sleeve. Breslin, 68, a jovial retired director of administration for Fife Council, is the collector behind the website www.rare78s.com, which, since its launch this year, has created the biggest stir in 78 collecting for decades. He owns what is probably the biggest stock of old 78s in the UK - some 50,000 in various warehouses and his shop in Edinburgh - and is now selling it, bit by bit, at between 50p and £1,000 a record.
When I first wrote about rare 78s, 15 years ago, that 1902 recording of Caruso singing Trimarchi's 'Un Bacio Ancora' was worth about £1,000. Today, it would sell for £2,000-£2,500 - although later 78s of Caruso and other top voices can still be had for under £2. I was surprised, on hearing it for the first time, to be disappointed. Instead of a Pavarotti-style belt, the voice seemed muted. A trained ear would have appreciated the vibrato, so close and firm as to appear non-existent. Which is what it appeared to me. I felt I had insulted fine wine.
Breslin was sympathetic. This, he explained, was Caruso's voice before it famously 'darkened' around 1908 and he became a tenore di forza. Many aficionados of rare 78s prefer it. Plunged into the deep end of recording history, I began to understand why only those earliest operatic recordings - not your jazz or Twenties dance bands - command such dizzy prices.
The point is that commercial gramophone recording arrived just in time to catch the 'golden age' of opera singing - the two decades 1890-1910, when the intimate, lyrical bel canto style, exemplified by Caruso's 'Un Bacio Ancora', was giving way to verismo, a passionate realism demanded by operas with plots that could be rudely compared with those of today's soap operas. Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana (1890) set the tone. And think of Puccini.
During those two golden decades some of the greatest voices of the 1890s were recorded and some of the leading singers of the 1870s and 1880s were coaxed out of retirement - among them, the soprano Adelina Patti and the baritone Charles Santley, for whom Gounod wrote Valentine's aria in Faust
According to the pioneer record collector P G Hurst, after a 'warm and genial twilight' and the halcyon season of 1908, opera singing declined into a 'hard and cold competence'.
One of the most popular opera singers on Breslin's website, besides Caruso, is the tenor Fernando de Lucia; according to Hurst the last exponent of the ultra-fine bel canto in excelsis. He later became a verismo tenor. Six of his 12 records on offer at £15-£160 have been sold, his 'De Miei Bollenti Spiriti' of 1906 from Verdi's La Traviata, on the G&T celebrity red label, fetching £100.
You will have to beg, borrow or steal a copy of Hurst's seminal book The Golden Age Recorded, first published in 1946, if you want to understand the fanaticism of some collectors. As a child, Hurst was taken regularly to Covent Garden by his parents and first heard Caruso there in 1904. He knew his stuff.
It is his book, with its sometimes acerbic critical notes and a listing of all the great recordings made between 1900 and 1907, that inspired Breslin. Aged about 10, Breslin was a well-known boy treble in Edinburgh. After his voice broke he used to spend his pocket money at Methven Simpson's record store in the city's Princes Street - where he chanced upon a copy of Hurst's book for 1s 6d. 'I read it from cover to cover at a sitting and then read it again', he says.
'After which, in a secondhand shop, I picked up for 3d a recording of Adelina Patti singing 'Home Sweet Home'.
Patti, an exponent of bel canto, had retired by the time she made the recording in 1905. Hurst compares her unfavourably with the famous Australian diva of the time Dame Nellie Melba, but the record still moves Breslin.
Breslin sometimes finds himself at odds with Hurst's opinions. For example, Hurst criticises the early 20th century tenor Eduardo Garbin for being 'addicted to a white production [lacking in emotional richness of tone] not generally acceptable to English ears'. According to Breslin, Hurst played Garbin's 1903 recordings at too high a speed, when only 69rpm will retain their tenor quality.
So the moral is: buy a gramophone with a playing speed that can be changed. And join a gramophone society for advice - the oldest, founded in 1919, is the City of London Phonograph and Gramophone Society, www.clpgs.org.uk. You can play these old acoustic (non-electric) recordings on an electric gramophone, as Breslin does - its range of zero to 100rpm is more than adequate for the extraordinarily wide 59-96rpm range of so-called 78s - but you will still need advice about such things as turntables and needles. Steel needles can wreck a valuable old 78. You might need thorn needles.
Collectors are eagerly awaiting more Russian 78s on the website. The legendary Fred Gaisberg of G&T went there in 1901 and recorded some of the top voices. Russian 78s emerged in quantity only after Perestroika and most are, unsurprisingly, not in Hurst.
Breslin bought a flat in St Petersburg in 1998 - 'a refuge at that time from the city's somewhat louche hotels' - which he occupied until last year. He taught himself Russian, and to read Cyrillic script, and bought thousands of 78s.
Among his spoils are two records by Maria Kouznetzova-Benua on her own Maria Records label, including Jacqueline's aria from Messager's Fortunio. Never re-recorded and worth £1,000 each.
Recordings that exist only on 78 have a special cachet. Breslin's record shop, The Gramophone Emporium, in Edinburgh, sells his first two, well-reviewed, CD compilations of old operatic 78s - Collectors' Treasures, £12.90 each, inc. p&p - but, re-recorded or not, well-heeled aficionados still want originals. Even I found that my brain disregarded the surface hiss of old 78s and homed in on the voice. They don't make them like that any more.
· Bill Breslin: firstname.lastname@example.org. The Gramophone Emporium, 12 & 21 St Stephen's Street, Edinburgh, open Wednesday afternoons 2pm-5pm and Saturdays 11am-5pm: phone Neil Macgregor, evenings (0131-221-1461).