GHCD 2275/76/77 – TOSCANINI – Otello – 1947

NBC Symphony Orchestra, Arturo Toscanini – conductor, Ramon Vinay, Herva Nelli, Giuseppe Valdengo

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International Record Review – December 2004

Historic Opera Reissues

Live performances on Guild

If it’s ‘live’ performances that primarily set your pulse racing, then Guild is in the forefront at present of issues or reissues of the great names in performances of whole operas, or tantalizing excerpts from them. Even when Guild puts out something that seems very familiar , it often turns out that it has found a new source for it, or has added exciting fillers. Otello conducted by Toscanini, for instance, must be as famous as any opera set, but in Guild’s issue not only is the restoration of sound incredibly vivid and immediate, but there are Ben Grauer’s atmosphere-evoking commentaries and, more important, a whole further disc of half an hour of rehearsal of Act 3 followed by the dress rehearsal of the same act, and an interview with Ramon Vinay, most hard-worked of Otellos (who else can be heard singing a single role under such a variety of major conductors?).

And William Youngren’s notes are a model of informed and balanced guidance (Guild Historical GHCD2275/7, three discs, 3 hours26 minutes).

Fanfare – November/December 2004

As in the past, I am confining my choices here to historical reissues that I have not had the opportunity to review in these pages. Paramount among them are two significant items from Guild devoted to Toscanini. The prize of the two is a 1943 broadcast of the Brahms German Requiem, the conductor’s only performance of the score with the NBC Symphony. Sung in English, it has had previous CD releases from Naxos and Memories, but neither comes close to the sonic splendor of this transfer, which is apparently drawn from a pristine set of NBC acetates. With its untraditional pacing (sometimes slower, sometimes faster than the norm), it makes an especially compelling case for the score. The other Guild item offers the two 1947 NBC broadcasts that Toscanini devoted to Verdi’s Otello. It should be noted that if the RCA release of the performance were still in print, Guild’s (despite its inclusion of a third disc featuring rehearsals) would be not only redundant, but less commanding on two counts: sound that is somewhat inferior to RCA ‘s and preservation of some faulty ensemble that was corrected for the RCA edition. But – as that is currently not to be had – Guild’s certainly gives an idea of why many consider the performance one of Toscanini’s greatest achievements.

My other choices involve pianists. Rudolf Serkin ‘s account of Brahms’s towering Hande Variations had an all-too-brief life when it was initially released in 1980. This recent imported Sony resurrection marks its first CD issue. It comprises one of the great achievements of Serkin ‘s later years, and – thanks to the work of Judith Sherman – preserves far more faithfully than do most of his other recordings his characteristic tone. It would have been preferable, however, had Sony elected to fill out the CD with the first (1953) Serkin/Szell collaboration in the Brahms D-Minor Piano Concerto, rather than with the later one in stereo, which has been available for some time in a variety of reissues. Finally, the release of three Beethoven violin sonatas offering a variety of performers commands interest primarily for the account of op. 96 because of the featured pianist – the yet-to-be-knighted Donald Tovey with Adila Fachiri (Joachim’s niece) in a c. 1927 recording. Fachiri sometimes has intonation lapses, but anyone who admires Tovey’s compelling writing about Beethoven should be fascinated by his occasionally free but nonetheless controlled and carefully structured playing. The sound is, of course, restricted, but can be vastly improved with a treble boost that compensates for the excessive filtering of the 78s.
Mortimer H. Frank

Music Web  02.04.04

Overall there is clarity, or lack of veiling, that many will welcome. The other added value is to be able to hear Toscanini’s orchestral rehearsal complete with his singing to provide the vocal line …
Arturo Toscanini’s regular NBC broadcasts have been well documented. Guild’s ‘Toscanini Legacy’ reflects a carefully selected melange of circumspection and adventure. Very often the repertoire chosen has overlapped studio recordings. Richard Caniell has justified this duplication in terms of vitality of performance. However, LPs and later CDs from these broadcasts have long been available commercially from RCA, so what special reason brings their issue here? In a detailed explanation on pages 32-33 of the comprehensive booklet, Caniell sets out the explanation and justification. The crux of his argument is that neither the original RCA vinyls nor later CD issues faithfully represented the quality of sound possible from the masters. They reflect ‘considerable attenuation of the sonic spectrum …and … the addition of some electronic echo!’ To overcome these perceived limitations Caniell and his team have gone back to what he calls ‘original sonics taken from the lacquers (‘linechecks’). These are said to ‘offer bright, clear, dry sound of considerable detail and stunning impact, superior, in our hearing, to the RCA/BMG Compact Disc set’. This is despite some deficiencies in the lacquers and a few instances of line leakage.

Listening to the performance with some care, I noted some odd moments of surface grit noise and also of overload distortion. However, overall there is a clarity, or lack of veiling, that many will welcome. The other added value to the issue is to be able to hear Toscanini’s orchestral rehearsal from Act III, complete with his singing to provide the vocal line, (CD 3 tr. 1). This took place on 11th December and is followed (tr. 2) by a portion of the ‘Dress Rehearsal’ from the following day. This disc concludes (Tr. 3) with a brief interview with Ramon Vinay.

Toscanini famously played in the string section of the memorable first night of Otello at La Scala in 1887. His interpretation is therefore viewed as definitive and this performance iconic. Phrases such as ‘white hot’ litter critical comment; certainly that describes the opening (CD 1 tr. 1) and Otello’s ‘Esultate!’ that follows (tr. 2). We can but guess if it really was like that on the opening and subsequent nights. On the other hand, and playing the iconoclast, is it the notoriously hard-driving conductor imposing his personality on Verdi’s incomparable work? I have never worshipped at the shrine of these singers and this chorus. I find Herva Nelli’s Desdemona thin-toned and lacking legato. The baritonal Vinay is vocally too similar to his Iago and the chorus lack Italianate ‘squilla’. I much prefer the red-blooded, but not over-cooked, Serafin, a consummate Verdian, also on RCA. Recorded in Rome in 1960, the Serafin version has the benefit of an Italian chorus, the unequalled Iago of Gobbi and the virile tenor tones of Vickers in the title role. However, each to his own preference, and I do hear why this performance appeals to many.

As always the Guild supporting documentation is first class with an excellent track-related synopsis in place of a full libretto. They also reproduce contemporary critical comment and there is a detailed musicological essay by William H Youngren. Those who know and love this performance above others will itch to hear if Caniell’s claims for sonic improvement are justified. I will simply note that he has a good record!
Robert J. Farr