GHCD 2263 – TOSCANINI – Bellini – Verdi – Boito – 1945

NBC Symphony Orchestra, Arturo Toscanini – Conductor, Nicola Moscona, Bass – Westminster Choir

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MusicWeb Tuesday April 02.04

This is another in Guild’s valuable series of recordings of Toscanini broadcast concerts. It contains one outstanding performance, one very good one and a disappointing one.

Let’s get the disappointment out of the way first. Ironically, when I received the CD for review the piece that I most wanted to hear was the Verdi Te Deum. Sadly it gets off to a very poor start. The opening quasi-plainchant phrases for basses then tenors are marked in my vocal score senza misura. That’s certainly not what we hear. The notes are sung four-square, too loud and with no sense of mystery. The four-square rhythm was clearly Toscanini’s intention for he takes this passage in a similar way in his 1954 live performance (issued by BMG/RCA). There, however, he has a much better choir at his disposal in the shape of Robert Shaw’s eponymous Chorale so they don’t make the music sound so wooden and they sing much more quietly. If you want to hear how this passage should sound then look no further than Giulini’s great EMI account with the Philharmonia.

The performance picks up somewhat after this unsatisfactory start but it never really moved me. Verdi makes tough demands in terms of dynamics and chromatic harmonies so it’s a fantastically difficult sing for the choir, as I know from experience. Frankly, the singers here are no match for their counterparts on the 1954 recording. In particular, there’s too much wavery singing and thin tone in quieter passages. Nor is attention to dynamics all it might be. At the end the cruelly exposed soprano soloist sings well but when the full choir enters, singing “in te speravi” (track 4, `14’39″) their tuning is horribly distorted though I’m pretty certain that’s down to the recorded sound itself. The audience delivers the coup de grace by erupting into applause as soon as the last note has sounded. My firm advice is to stick to Toscanini’s 1954 recording if you want to hear him in this work.

Happily, the remainder of this rather strangely assorted programme is much better. The Bellini item is projected very powerfully (indeed, the degree of power may surprise some listeners, as it did me.) However, Toscanini’s approach is most effective, I think. Nicola Moscona sings splendidly. He’s sonorous and forthright and he’s capably supported by the chorus. The orchestra contributes red-blooded playing.

In the booklet Richard Caniell waxes lyrical about the Boito performance, and rightly so. This is a splendidly theatrical affair in which the Prelude is powerfully and atmospherically played by the NBC Symphony. The chorus sounds much more at home and much more convincing in this music and Moscona is tremendous, giving a commanding performance, laced with sardonic touches. In sum, he is suitably diabolical. Towards the end there is a prominent part for a boys choir too and the boys here sound, rather appropriately, like angelic urchins. The layered textures of the closing Salve Regina are built by Toscanini to a fervent climax, which, understandably, induces the audience to go wild. I don’t believe this is great music but Toscanini makes you think otherwise. Apparently he was very happy after the performance and I’m not surprised.

The recorded sound is variable and calls for some tolerance, especially in the Verdi. However, purchasers of this series will know what to expect. As is always the case with this series, very full (and frank) details of the source material are given. Guild haven’t provided texts or translations, which is a pity. However, there are very informative notes, which, in the case of the operatic items, give a good feel for the action. One small criticism is that the author of the notes refers to the Boito in terms of five “movements” whereas Guild provides six separate tracks. It’s a little confusing at first but one soon mentally aligns the two.

Admirers of the Maestro will certainly want to investigate this issue. For the more general collector the recommendation must be more qualified. I’d say you can do much better for the Verdi but the Bellini and, particularly, the Boito are well worth hearing.
John Quinn

MusicWeb Sunday December 07 03

This is an unusual programme of unrelated items in fair sound. Even those who have the later recordings of the Verdi and Boito will be tempted to hear the great conductor in Bellini and should not hesitate. …

It was not unusual for Toscanini to include vocal or operatic items in his broadcast programs, but it was rare for them to be wholly vocal and without any particular cohesive theme. He had a distinguished background in the opera house. He conducted the premières of both Pagliacci and La Boheme. His work in the theatre concluded at Salzburg in 1937 and he only gave concert performances for NBC (all those performances were recorded and have been issued commercially) in New York. This disc provides a rare opportunity to hear him in the likes of Bellini. The accompanying booklet suggests that Toscanini’s performance of the Norma ‘Prologue’ is utterly different from other performances ‘by his complete avoidance of the delicate and lyrical style most conductors routinely apply to Bellini’. In comparing Bonynge (Decca with Sutherland) and Cillario (RCA with Caballé) that is not so in respect of tempi or dynamic. Bonynge reaches Oroveso’s entry in 2 minutes 40 seconds, concluding in 7.49 as against Toscanini’s 3.00. and 9.18. Maybe, with his last theatre experience of the work being nearly fifty years before, he was luxuriating in the long Bellinian cantilena (tr. 2). Anyway, the forward momentum is sufficient for dramatic cohesion and the male chorus is vibrant and well articulated. There is no distortion in the orchestral climaxes although the overall sound is set at a relatively low level and is rather ‘boxy’. The Greek bass, Nicola Moscana as Oroveso is firm if lacking the sap and weight of tone to ideally convey the gravity and implacability of the part.

The ‘Te Deum’ is the longest of Verdi’s ‘Quattro pezzi sacri’. Composed between 1889 and 1897 they form part of the great man’s last compositions. The work was premiered in Paris in April 1898 and received its Italian première, under Toscanini’s baton, in Turin, the following May. The conductor, characteristically in Verdi, is more thrusting in tempi than in the Bellini, with a very wide dynamic on choral climaxes as in the ‘Sanctus’ (tr 4; the parts are not separately tracked) and there are one or two places where the sound of the chorus recedes and loses vibrancy. Perhaps the transcription sources were not wholly ideal. I don’t believe there is sufficient distinctive quality in this performance to give it preference over the better recorded 1954 version that has been issued by RCA.

Toscanini had long championed Boito’s Mefistofele having conducted productions in Italy and South America. His tempi here are faster, distinctly so in Mefistofeles’ aria ‘Ave Signor’ (tr. 8), than de Fabritiis on Decca’s recording of the complete opera, but more relaxed in the concluding ‘Salve Regina’ (tr. 9). Whilst being steady toned, and with exemplary diction, as in the Bellini, Moscana manages more tonal colour here. In the thrilling concluding finale the chorus is a little overloaded and loses some definition. As with Verdi’s Te Deum a later, and better recorded, performance (1954), has been issued by RCA.

This is an unusual programme of unrelated items in fair sound. Even those who have the later recordings of the Verdi and Boito will be tempted to hear the great conductor in Bellini and should not, particularly at the modest price, hesitate.
Robert J Farr