GHCD 2307/08 – TOSCANINI – Boito Memorial – La Scala 1948
La Scala Chorus and Orchestra, Arturo Toscanini – Conductor, Siepi – Nelli – Prandelli – Guarrera – Simionato – Nessi – Ticozzi
International Record Review, April 2005
The `filler’ material, also with the La Scala Orchestra under Toscanini, is splendid: the two Traviata Preludes (1951) and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 1 (1946) are all dope with the thrilling intelligence and expressive force that one would expect.
Toscanini ablaze at La Scala
Listeners are fortunate indeed to have radio broadcast documentation of La Scala’s 1948 concert commemorating the thirtieth anniversary of Arrigo Boito’s death. Under Toscanini’s direction, the Prologue and Act 3 of Mefistofele achieve perhaps the summit in this opera’s discography. The conductor is simply an fire, every Single episode superbly judged in terms of mood, colour and tempo. His soloists perform as if their lives depend an it. Cesare Siepi’s devil, for example, offers an ease, beauty and solidity from top to bottom that seem astounding from a singer then only in his mid-twenties. Siepi was never the most detailed interpreter, but his intensity fits the bill here. Herva Nelli never equalled her heart-stopping singing of Margherita’s prison-scene music, and her emotional commitment is complete (Enrico, mi fai ribrezzo’ is, for once, delivered with truly believable loathing). Giacinto Prandelli Partners Nelli gallantly in the `Lontano’ duet.
The La Scala Chorus and Orchestra cover themselves with glory in both Mefistofele and the extended excerpts from Boito’s Nerone. Even Toscanini is hard-pressed to breathe life into this intermittently striking but exceedingly unwieldy score, an which the composer laboured for an unbelievable six decades (its completion was supervised by Toscanini himself). The singers do their best. The soaring baritone of the young Frank Guarrera (Fanuel) gets the lion’s share of the music heard here. Joining him are Siepi’s monumental Simon Mago, the vocally secure and superbly dramatic Nelli (Asteria) and Simionato (Rubria) in her warmest voice
Music Web 11.02.05
In his booklet essay, London Green puts Boito alongside Verdi at the creative centre of Italian music in the second half of the 19th century and places Toscanini as the fiery interpretative master of the first half of the 20th. This caused me to pause and think. Certainly without Boito there would have been no Otello or Falstaff. Nor would La Scala have flourished in the manner it did during Toscanini’s tenure as the theatre’s principal conductor; Boito was vitally influential to that appointment.
Boito’s first opera, Mefistofele, was premiered at La Scala on March 5th 1868 but was not a success. Unlike Gounod’s Faust, Boito based his opera on both parts of Goethe’s work. Thus, after Marguerite’s death there is the scene of ‘The Night of the Classical Sabbath’ introducing Helen of Troy. Despite the relative lack of success of the work, Toscanini regularly revived it at La Scala, memorably in 1901 with Caruso as Faust and Chaliapin, on his house debut, as Mefistofele. Toscanini regularly encouraged Boito to complete his life’s work, the opera Nerone. A premiere was planned for La Scala in 1914 featuring the conductor and Caruso both then based at the Met. However, the score was not finished and remained so at Boito’s death in 1918 aged 76. Over the following years Toscanini supervised the musical completion of Nerone and presented it at La Scala on May 1st 1924 with Pertile and Journet in the most elaborate and expensive production in the theatre’s history.
At the end of World War 2 La Scala was in ruins as a consequence of an allied bombing raid in August 1943. The theatre was rebuilt within a year of the end of the war. Toscanini who had personally subscribed one hundred thousand Lire towards the reconstruction was invited to conduct the opening concert on May 11th 1946. As a requirement of his participation the conductor demanded the reinstatement of his former chorus master, Vittore Veneziani. A Jew, he had been banished from the theatre by the Fascists. Two years after the reopening concert Toscanini returned to conduct fully-staged scenes from Boito’s two operas in commemoration of the composer’s death some thirty years before. Whilst most of the singers, the young Renata Tebaldi apart, had at the reopening been of the older generation of Italian singers, the Boito Memorial Concert featured the coming generation.
This Guild recording of the Boito Memorial Concert is derived from acetate discs of a broadcast transmission. Like many recordings from La Scala it has a rather restricted and boxy, sound. To this must be added further problems of odd extraneous noises and loss of focus on voices. These noises are not so numerous as to be a source of major distraction, although the rather airless acoustic takes some getting used to. It is certainly worth the effort to hear Toscanini and the La Scala chorus in full flow (CD 1 trs. 1, 5-7). An Italian chorus has a particular squilla, and when as well disciplined as here, and giving it their all, the thrilling sound makes the remaining hairs on my head stand on end. Cesare Siepi was seen in Italy as the natural successor to Tancredi Pesaro and Ezio Pinza in the basso cantante repertoire. As physically elegant as Pinza he was more lyric in timbre. Despite the soloists being set too far back on the sound-stage his lean and even (not thin) tone penetrates the proceedings (CD 1 tr. 5). His interpretation of Mefistofele is incisive as well as mellifluous. There is no wooliness or lugubrious tone. Siepi carries his vocal strengths into his interpretation of Simon Mago in the extracts from Nerone (CD 2 tr. 1). If Toscanini was keen to promote the coming generation of Italian singers he should have cast Tebaldi rather than bringing Herva Nelli, a favourite of his, from the Met; the great compared with the merely adequate. Of the other soloists only the Rubria of Giulietta Simionato, recently ‘discovered’ at age 37, evinces real quality with beautiful tone and well-characterised singing.
The appendices have no particular distinction and could have been better chosen. The brief radio commentary is in Italian. The booklet essay is informative and interesting whilst the singer biographies are a shade eulogistic. The performances of the Boito works were part of a great La Scala night. It is commendable of Guild to enable us to share a memorable night, and particularly to allow us to witness two great Italian singers who were destined to make a considerable impact over the next ten years or so – longer in Siepi’s case. Toscanini’s conducting and the singing of the chorus make this issue of these rarely performed works memorable.
Music Web 08.01.05
This is new ground for the Guild Toscanini edition. All have previously concentrated on the NBC recordings but this one goes further afield; literally so, to La Scala, Milan, for the entire programme. This divides neatly if unevenly into a triptych. The Boito was a memorial to the composer who had died thirty years before. It was a fully staged evening of operatic scenes, all presided over by Toscanini who had first met the composer, it seems, in 1895. Boito recognised the young Toscanini’s operatic gifts and assiduously encouraged him. For his part Toscanini remained affectionate, admiring and loyal to Boito. He kept vigil by the composer’s coffin the night before Boito’s funeral. The second component is the limited release Verdi – the Preludes to Acts I and III of La Traviata, made with the La Scala Orchestra a few years later in 1951. Toscanini rejected them for publication but there was a very limited circulation in Brazil as a promotional benefit disc. The final part of the triptych consists of the 1946 Beethoven First Symphony. This is the earliest item here and only in so-so sound.
The main point of interest however centres on Boito. Toscanini had given the world premiere of Nerone in 1924 and his post-War visit is charged with a very real sense of identification. It’s a shame therefore that we only have staged Acts, and not the complete work, as is the case with Mefistofele where what is extant is the Prologue and Act III. Perhaps of rather more pressing concern is the sound quality which is certainly deficient. There are the occasional whistling noises and the sound picture is very compressed. There are some acetate changes – nothing at all ruinous but audible and there is some scuffing on the surviving discs, though the main concern centres on the recession of sound.
Toscanini sounds entirely in his element dramatically and theatrically despite these limitations. The incision of the orchestral introduction to Mefistofele is palpable. He is fortunate in having Siepi whose range is notable in Ave Signore, perdona se il mio gorgo and who sings throughout with great lyric generosity and considerable power of characterisation and, not least, plausibly youthful voice. Herva Nelli gets a well merited and admiring write-up in the notes; she demonstrates gravity and considerable range of tone colour, despite the relatively primitive recording set up, especially in Act III’s L’altra notte. She’s right on the note in the passage beginning Sorge il di and possesses great clarity as well, her tenorial colleague Giacinto Prandelli having a free delivery.
Nerone has one or two off-mike moments but we can appreciate Nessi’s rather hectoring tenor, the sheer nobility of Guarrera’s baritone (sample Act III’s Vivete in pace) and Giulietta Simionato’s surprisingly moving Rubria. The principals are excellent here once again though obviously this is really only a very partial realisation of a part of the opera. Enough remains to intrigue however.
The Verdi extracts are played with diaphanous gentleness and finally the Beethoven has some aural blips, a number of which seem to have been ironed out by the restoration. The performance doesn’t vary too far from expected post-War Toscanini norms; the 1937 BBC recording was warmer.
As usual with this company documentation is thorough and attractive. The programme is a specialist one but will certainly appeal to those taken by the vibrant Toscanini-Boito connection.
Classical Net 2004
Arturo Toscanini’s relationship with one of the greatest librettist’s of all time has remained legendary and the conductor’s understanding of the man’s music is clearly demonstrated in this hugely desirable set. The only major gripe is the quality of the recorded sound that is quite recessed at times and this definitely detracts from the wonder and great beauty of the interpretations.
It is an even greater pity that we do not have the complete performance of this particular air check of ‘Mefistofele’. Cesare Siepi is simply overwhelming as the devil, whilst Herva Nelli’s pure singing as Margherita is also quite ravishing. However the magnificence and glory of this opera remains in the big choral and orchestra scenes with the conclusion of the Prologue suitably apocalyptic on all levels. This is definitely an important addition to the Toscanini discography and is better than the previous Guild issue of the ‘Mefistofele’ prologue with American forces.
‘Nerone’ is a slightly more complex opera and I remember being fascinated by the LP set issued on the defunct Cetra label which for many years was the only recorded performance of this great work. Again we have the indefatigable Cesare Siepi as Simon Mago and the young Giulietta Simionato as Rubria with Nelli in the forefront in the role of Asteria. Toscanini is pensive in his interpretation but there are also moments of great drama throughout. The preludes from ‘La Traviata’ and the singular recording of Beethoven’s First Symphony are fine bonuses.
As usual, Guild provides excellent notes and backup information with a wealth of historical photographs. If you are a fan of great opera then you obviously won’t want to be without these great recordings although the sound is slightly problematic at times.