Reviews for IPCD 1100-5
1937 Salzburg and 1950 NBC
March /April 2018
The bond between Giuseppe Verdi and his music, and Arturo Toscanini, is well documented. On June 30, 1886 in Rio de Janeiro, Toscanini, 19 years old, was pressed into service to make his last-second conducting debut in Verdi’s Aida. The following year, Toscanini was a member of the cello section of the La Scala Orchestra for the premiere of Verdi’s penultimate opera, Otello. During rehearsals, Verdi walked down to the orchestra pit and chided Toscanini for not playing loudly enough during the introduction to the love duet that concludes act I. That encounter made a profound impression on the young Toscanini. But the music of Otello made an even greater impression. After the triumphant February 5, 1887 premiere, Toscanini ran home, woke up his mother in the middle of the night and exclaimed, “Mama, Verdi is a genius! Down on your knees to Verdi!” In subsequent years, Toscanini had the opportunity to meet with Verdi and discuss the interpretation of his works. When Verdi died in 1901 at the age of 87, it was Toscanini, now the music director of La Scala, who led a musical tribute to Italy’s most beloved and revered composer. None of this is meant to suggest that a Toscanini recording of a work by Verdi represents the music precisely the way the composer intended. But there is no question that these documents offer a unique and invaluable link from composer, to interpreter, to our ears. Each Toscanini recording of Verdi commands repeated listening and study. That is certainly the case in the two complete Toscanini-led performances of Verdi’s final opera, Falstaff, preserved on disc (Salzburg, August 9, 1937, and NBC Studio 8H, April 1 and 8, 1950). While other professional obligations kept Toscanini from being present for the La Scala world premiere of Falstaff on February 9, 1893, he conducted the work the following year in Genoa. Verdi sent Toscanini a letter acknowledging the praise the young conductor had received for his interpretation. Over the ensuing years of his long and storied career, Toscanini conducted Falstaff in more productions and seasons than any other opera in his repertoire. It’s not surprising that both surviving complete Toscanini Falstaffs have been issued several times by various companies. Now, Immortal Performances provides its own restoration of the 1937 and 1950 Falstaff performances, along with a complete act I from Salzburg (August 29, 1936), and orchestral rehearsals of act I for the 1950 broadcast (the set comprises five discs, priced as four).
According to author and Toscanini authority Harvey Sachs, preparation for the 1950 Falstaff was a lengthy, intense process that included cast piano rehearsals over a period of six weeks, averaging six hours per day. The Immortal Performances set includes extended excerpts from orchestral rehearsals for act I (there is no duplication of the rehearsal material featured on a two-disc 1986 Music & Arts release). If you are at all a fan of this kind of document, the Falstaff rehearsals are a must. The legendary Toscanini temper is only occasionally in evidence. Toscanini fills in for the missing singers (both male and female), and in his familiar raspy voice, delivers the music and text with a clarity and involvement that touchingly reveal his intense love and sympathy for Verdi’s comic masterpiece. It’s also a wonderful reminder of how, courtesy of Verdi’s genius, the Falstaff orchestra assumes the role of a principal in the drama of at least equal importance to the leading singers. The lengthy and scrupulous period of preparation is certainly evident in a performance that crackles with precision, fire, and nuance, right from the boisterous opening measures to the concluding fugue. The 1937 Salzburg Falstaff (more on that in a bit) offers a bit more flexibility of phrasing. But the 1950 performance is hardly metronomic. Quite the contrary, it teems with life and humor. Many believe (as I do) that among available commercial recordings of Falstaff, Toscanini’s 1950 broadcast is the best conducted. We’re fortunate that the performance is also cast from strength. Falstaff is the Italian baritone Giuseppe Valdengo, the Iago in the 1947 NBC Otello, and Amonasro in the 1949 Aida. Valdengo’s lyric baritone was probably not a natural fit for the rotund Sir John, often sung by rich-voiced bass-baritones. But Valdengo was always a resourceful and imaginative performer, with superb diction and a keen sense of opera’s theatrical potential. These attributes, honed during an extended period of preparation with Toscanini (starting seven months before the broadcast) resulted in an interpretation of true genius. I rank Valdengo’s Falstaff, along with those of Giuseppe Taddei (Cetra), Tito Gobbi (EMI), and Geraint Evans (London) as the finest on commercial discs. Time and again, Valdengo (aided by Toscanini) offers touches that are spot on, and may even inspire you to laugh out loud. Just one example of many: In the act I “Honor” Monologue, Falstaff sings the line, “Può l’onore riempirvi la pancia?” (Can honor fill your belly?). When Valdengo arrives at the word “riempirvi” (fill), he exaggerates the rolling of both “r”s, and accentuates the thrice-repeated “ee” vowel sound, all the while adopting a plump vocal color. As a result, in the course of just a single word, Valdengo brilliantly portrays Falstaff’s physical girth and self-contentment, disdain for the concept of “honor,” and in the bargain, he paints a vocal picture of the physical act of filling an empty space (Stabile takes much the same approach to the same excerpt in the 1936 Salzburg act I). The remainder of the cast offers several additional top-notch performances. Nan Merriman (Meg Page), Cloe Elmo (Mistress Quickly), and Teresa Stich-Randall (Nanetta), a trio of great artists, approach the ideal in their respective roles. Herva Nelli, a regular presence in the Toscanini-NBC opera series, gives one of her finest performances as Alice Ford. Baritone Frank Guarrera, little more than a year into his long and valuable Metropolitan Opera career, is a virile and vocally secure Ford. The addition of Ben Grauer’s radio announcements, and audience applause (and sometimes, cheers) at the conclusion of each scene add to the sense of occasion.
As a performance, the 1937 Salzburg Falstaff is on an equally exalted level. In addition to Toscanini’s miraculous conducting, it boasts Mariano Stabile in the title role. Stabile sang Falstaff an estimated 1,200 times in his career, first at La Scala in 1921, under Toscanini’s direction. In the 1937 performance, Stabile sings with absolute vocal and dramatic assuredness and authority, and never a hint of routine. The rest of the cast is excellent as well. If only the sound quality approached the studio recordings of the period, or even first-rate contemporaneous broadcasts. But the 1937 performance was recorded via the Selenophone method, using a film stock machine that allowed for sound preservation and reproduction. While the Selenophone method made recording an easier process than with individual discs, the sound quality was inferior. Early CD reissues of the 1937 Falstaff tested the resources and patience of even the most veteran collectors of live historic recordings. In 2004, Andante issued a restoration of the 1937 Salzburg Falstaff, along with a 1957 performance from the same Festival, conducted by Herbert von Karajan. The Andante offered the best sound to date of 1937 Falstaff, but it is now out of print. But even in the fine Andante issue, the sonics are compromised, relegating this magnificent performance to the status of a collector’s item more talked about than actually listened to.
I am aware of three official RCA compact disc reissues of the 1950 Falstaff. In 1990, RCA issued the recording on CD as part of its comprehensive Gold Seal Arturo Toscanini Collection. It is a worthy representation of the performance, offering marvelous detail, if also conveying the dry acoustic typical of Studio 8-H recordings. In 2000, RCA offered a new Red Seal CD issue, “digitally remastered using UV22™ Super CD Encoding.” There is no question that the sound on the 2000 release offers greater fullness and warmth than its CD predecessor. However, that sonic richness is obtained via the use of added resonance. As a result, the new mastering does not provide the (almost clinical) detail of the first CD issue and to my ears, sounds artificial. Further, in the loudest passages, the sound begins to overload, approaching fragmentation. The Falstaff that is part of the 2012 Complete RCA Collection appears to be a clone of the 2000 Red Seal reissue. My preference among the three RCA CD issues is the 1990 Gold Seal. My colleague Huntley Dent disagrees, nominating the 2000 Red Seal set for the Fanfare Hall of Fame (May/June 2017, 40:5). One interesting tidbit: At the start of act I, Dr. Caius (Gabor Carelli) accuses Falstaff, “Hai battuto i miei servi!” (You have beaten my servants!). That is what Carelli sings in the 1990 set. In the 2000 and 2012 issues (as well as the Immortal Performances release), Carelli sings some undecipherable combination of vowels and consonants, but certainly not what librettist Arrigo Boito wrote. The 1990 Gold Seal set is the only one that corrects (either via a retake or splicing of rehearsal material) a flaw in the actual performance.
I assume that the three RCA CD issues of the 1950 Falstaff are derived from the concert master tapes. In the Immortal Performances restoration, Richard Caniell takes a different approach, working from test pressings made for Toscanini. In my estimation, Caniell has used that source material to produce the finest CD representation of this unsurpassed performance. It is true that the source test pressings have some surface noise absent from the RCA CD issues. But the basic sound quality strikes me as a noticeable and dramatic improvement. Indeed, Immortal Performances has the precise detail of the 1990 Gold Seal issue (without any sense of the artificial enhancement in the 2000 and 2012 reissues), at the same time offering a warmer, more natural acoustic, especially when framing the singers. As much as I like the Gold Seal release, it has a bit of a metallic haze around the voices. That haze is absent in the Immortal Performances restoration. The best of all worlds would be Immortal Performances’ sound picture, but without any surface noise. Still, Immortal Performances emerges as the clear winner for me, followed by 1990 Gold Seal. Likewise, the Immortal Performances restoration of the 1937 Salzburg performance is an improvement over the estimable Andante release. The voices are more focused, and placed in a warmer, less artificial and harsh acoustic. You will still not mistake this for a sonically first-rate broadcast of the era, much less of a fine studio recording of the time. But the performance is of the greatest importance, and the Immortal Performances restoration presents it in the best light. Another welcome bonus is a complete Salzburg act I from 1936, featuring the same cast as the complete 1937 performance. The sound is about on a par with the 1937 Falstaff, as is the performance (which is to say, superb). The booklet includes a detailed essay by John Sullivan on the performances, artist bios and photos, notes on the recording sources and rehearsal sequences by Richard Caniell, a detailed plot synopsis, and Olin Downes’s review for the New York Times of the April 8, 1950 broadcast. Immortal Performances becomes my clear first choice for both of these transcendent performances. And in the bargain, you get the 1936 act I and the 1950 rehearsal excerpts. Wonderful.
1937 Salzburg and 1950 NBC
March /April 2018
Arturo Toscanini’s recording career lasted a little over 30 years, during which time, largely as a result of his close and wholly unique association with NBC/RCA, very many of his broadcast performances in the last 20 years of his concert-giving life were captured on disc and tape, to the extent that his recorded legacy is the largest of any conductor active during that period. While it is true that specialists and technical historians in recording techniques have consistently berated the original sound quality of many of Toscanini’s recordings—with good reason, although those shortcomings were not invariably solely the province of NBC broadcast or RCA recording technicians—music-lovers must continually be grateful that those performances exist at all. Such has been the detailed application of modern recording technology to recordings from earlier eras that specialists—and general music-lovers, too, who take their love of music very seriously—can often be surprised at the ability of technicians to reveal more detail in older recordings than the reproducing equipment of those times could deliver.
For many specialist collectors, of course, my remarks will doubtless appear self-evident, but before we get down to the nitty-gritty it is necessary to remind ourselves from time to time precisely what it is we are dealing with. Toscanini’s extensive discography (as well as his concert repertoire) is remarkably wide-ranging—greater, in fact, than many people realize—but it is dominated by the work of four great composers of whom his performances have achieved deserved legendary status: Beethoven, Brahms, Wagner, and Verdi. In terms of Toscanini and Verdi—the only fellow-Italian amongst the four—Verdi was the only composer Toscanini knew personally (although he was 30 when Brahms died). This personal association gives Toscanini’s performances of Verdi’s music an authority unique amongst recorded conductors; allied to which is the strange coincidence that Verdi was the first composer whose music he conducted—and the last. In 1886, the teenaged Arturo Toscanini was a cellist and assistant chorus-master in an Italian opera company on tour in South America when both conductor and his replacement withdrew from a performance of Verdi’s Aida. In desperation, the company turned to Toscanini, who, without rehearsals and entirely from memory, conducted that evening’s performance, demonstrating to the company (and to the world at large when news of his feat emerged) that they had a conducting genius (by no means too strong a word) in their midst. For the remainder of the tour and during the following season in Italy, Toscanini directed no fewer than 18 operas—all before his 20th birthday; in February 1887 he played in the La Scala orchestra at the first night of Otello. In June 1954, some months after his final broadcast concert, Toscanini returned to the studio to “patch” existing recordings prior to commercial release. One might wonder what thoughts had gone through the 87-year-old’s mind on contemplating his debut 68 years earlier—or his meetings with the composer in the final seven years of Verdi’s life.
One could devote several thousand more words to the background and personal assessment of Toscanini’s approach to Falstaff in the course of this review, but the existence of both complete recordings (1937 and 1950), and the complete act I from the 1936 Salzburg Festival has not only been relatively common knowledge for many years, but the magnificence of the 1937 complete performance has been the prime reason for its appearance on several labels in recent decades—not all now currently available. Not only is there a compelling commercial reason for this performance to be made available once more, but also it affords new listeners as well as those familiar with it to hear the vastly experienced restoration work of audio engineer Richard Caniell, who has, in my opinion, produced the most natural sound possible from the original unsatisfactory Selenophone film recording. In terms of the challenge Caniell set himself to produce a sonic transfer more faithful to the musical performance than had been achieved before, so far as I am concerned he has done that. This is not to denigrate the fine work of earlier transfers, for restoration engineers have to take decisions which occasionally amount to compromises, and no one who is interested in historic recordings would wish to question the ethical nature of those decisions. In his detailed and compelling notes accompanying this set, Caniell explains the impetus which drives his work, and how he approached several of the conundrums which the original 1937 complete recording pose. But the results are standards by which the finished product is judged, not in the technical know-how that led up to it.
Toscanini enthusiasts, Verdi lovers, and collectors of great opera recordings will have to have this set—for reasons not solely concerned with Caniell’s restoration. The most obvious attraction is that these five CDs—generously offered for the price of four—contain every scrap of Toscanini’s surviving recordings of the one opera which he admired above all others in one package, and of which his performances—as captured on these discs—had dumbfounded such contemporaries of his as Felix Weingartner, Herbert von Karajan, and Erich Leinsdorf. Even the conductor himself agreed: in a letter sent towards the end of July 1937, Toscanini wrote: “... Falstaff had an excellent performance, better, perhaps, than in previous years.” Those wishing to acquaint themselves fully with this masterwork of European music-dramatic art, but who do not study these recordings, deny themselves the opportunity of coming into contact with one of the greatest manifestations of the human spirit—in drama through Shakespeare and in music through Verdi—recreated in performances by one of the greatest interpreters of musical art of the last 150 years—not once, but twice—and revealed on these discs as never before through Caniell’s skill and aesthetic judgments.
Both performances of Falstaff reveal recreations of the work so comprehensive in their dramatic, human, and musical understanding such as can rarely have been heard before—or since. They reveal Toscanini at the very height of his consistently considerable powers—two performances, 13 years apart, demonstrating that this opera, at its heart, is human: full of simple humanity, energetic and relaxed, and fully cognizant of life’s frailties and absurdities as well as being profoundly moving and life-enhancing, with Toscanini the greatest master of such an incomparable masterpiece. Verdi described Falstaff as a commedia lirica, and under Toscanini’s baton the work is precisely that. Comedy does not preclude drama—for it is the absurdities of dramatic events which provide the comedy. For these factors, in 1936 and 1937, he had the participation of four of the greatest dramatic Verdi singers of the era—Stabile, Biasini, Borgioli, and Somigli. Their assumption of their roles is well-nigh perfect in musical truth and dramatic personification, such as we may experience anew in the wonderfully engrossing account of the lead-in to the finale of act II, where we become almost “double time-travelers”—listeners to the performance on stage, and also transported to the end of the 14th century, to Master Ford’s house in Windsor, where (at that point in the opera) Ford and his friends come looking for Sir John Falstaff, whose attentions towards Ford’s wife have aroused suspicion. The comings and goings as the nature of the situation become more hilarious, ending with Falstaff (hiding in a laundry-basket) being unceremoniously dumped in the river. Such is Toscanini’s overall control of the musical and dramatic aspects of these events that the increasing tension within the closing stretches of the act enables the drama to be played out in real time, the composer’s carefully wrought personifications being made with such clarity as to define the greatness of operatic conducting such as listeners experience rarely in a lifetime’s opera-going. Mariano Stabile’s Falstaff, Dino Borgioli’s Fenton, and Piero Biasini’s Ford in particular virtually define their roles for all time, but we must not forget that other singers in this production had also sung their roles under Toscanini’s direction at La Scala in 1929—Giuseppe Nessi (Bardolfo) and Mita Vasari (Meg Page) in particular. The result was clearly not a performance rehearsed and put together within a few weeks for an international festival. In the 1937 performance we witness the tangible capture of the genuine theatrical atmosphere—not only a live performance taking place as we listen, but also the added sonic patina of an audience, engrossed and enthralled by what it is witnessing, such as to impart to our ears, 80 and more years later, our own reactions to this rare artistic experience—reactions made more complete through Richard Caniell’s musically driven restoration. In such instances as the original sound has been, in straightforward English, “cleaned up,” as, for example, Falstaff approaches the concluding pages of the very first scene—where, from his initial entry, we are immediately drawn to the voice and personification of character that Stabile creates in calling for more drink, thrust into the scene through Toscanini’s very fast tempo (we immediately visualize the staging—Stabile, ensemble, conductor, and the Vienna Philharmonic as one) and the detailed ensemble which brings the following scene to its close—these are aspects of this performance which, it is safe to assert, have never been heard with greater clarity and downright musical sense than here. Good as the Andante restoration was, this new Immortal Performances set is to be preferred.
Toscanini was 70 years old in 1937, and it is scarcely believable that 13 years later, in New York, he was able to direct a performance of the opera for broadcasting of comparable interpretative quality. Principal, of course, among these factors is the singer who portrays Falstaff himself. For some listeners at the time, Giuseppe Valdengo’s timbre may have seemed a shade light—too youthful a Falstaff—but we know that his role was prepared through almost two months of virtually daily piano rehearsals (as was the rest of the cast), and that time and again he was able, in the finished performances, to subtly darken his timbre at dramatic moments; here is a man, indeed, who has lived long and supped perhaps too often at humanity’s various tables. The fact remains, for all listeners, that Valdengo excelled himself under Toscanini—then, 83 years of age, still at the summit of his powers—inspiring Valdengo to delineate a character which can stand comparison with Stabile in virtually every bar, never a “copy” but in many ways an equal. The other roles in the 1950 production are hardly inferior musically to those Toscanini engaged 13 years before; the ladies (Herva Nelli, Cloe Elmo and Nan Merriman) all comparable to those at Salzburg, and, to some listeners’ ears, in one or two ways (perhaps Teresa Stich-Randall’s lyric soprano, for example) superior, thanks to the attention to sonic detail which has been brought to the familiar Studio 8-H acoustic in this restoration. What Caniell has achieved in revisiting this 1950 Studio 8-H recording is as equally impressive as his work on the 1930 originals, as his accompanying compelling essay explains—some of its personal detail may well come as a revelation to many collectors. As a considerable bonus, the rehearsal sequences will provide hours of additional study and illumination—to performing musicians and dedicated music-lovers alike. But there can be no doubt as to the greater clarity and generally more natural ambient “feel” of the new Immortal Performances restoration. This is, to my ears, a decided improvement on the original.
I have been deeply moved by listening to these performances once more, with a heightened appreciation of the demonstrable improvement in sound of both recordings. Here, truly, is a profound example of technology in the service of art. In terms of production standards, packaging and the finely penetrating assessments of these performances by John Sullivan—who possesses the ability to explain the musical and interpretative subtleties of the artists in laymen’s terms, producing one of the finest CD booklet essays I have ever read. Together with Richard Caniell’s engrossing complementary essay, the result is a truly great set that deserves a place in the collection of all who takes their love of music at all seriously. This is a life-enhancing issue.