Reviews

GHCD 2242/43 – TOSCANINI – Wagner Concert – Melchior – Traubel – 1941

NBC Symphony Orchestra, Arturo Toscanini – Conductor, Helen Traubel & Lauritz Melchior

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American Record Guide Juli/August 2005

Toscanini and Furtwängler represented diametrically opposed poles of musical interpre-tation; Toscanini the literalist (“for me Beethoven 3:I is simply allegro con brio”) and Furtwängler the visionary romantic (“the printed score is only an imperfect guide to the composer’s real ideas”). Both were great conductors, but their musical ideas and other character traits were so different that they never liked or trusted one another. Toscanini was fortunate in his democratic political convictions, firmly held and expressed, while Furtwängler was vaguely humane and kindly disposed toward his native land, but was accused of collaboration with the Nazis and was forbidden to conduct for two years before he was cleared of most of the allegations. Toscanini was politically the right musician in the right place at the right time to profit not only from his musical talents but also from wartime political propaganda. Furtwängler found it impossible to accept the Chicago Symphony’s offer of a music directorship, or indeed to conduct in the US at all after WW II.

As a result of all the political shenanigans, Toscanini became the darling of US music critics and other media bigwigs and, in effect, could do no wrong until he died in 1957. The reverential comments by the radio announcers and commentators included in these broadcast selections offer irrefutable evidence of this syndrome. To have made even a tentative suggestion that the Maestro’s work was sometimes too loud or too fast, or that his brass players were sometimes coarse and less than refined would be beyond the pale. Furtwängler (whose recordings began to cross the Atlantic in the immediate postwar years) was too slow, too imprecise, too wayward, couldn’t even set a tempo and stick with it.

Finally, slowly at first, then more rapidly, things began to change. Particularly after Toscanini’s death, Furtwängler’s reputation rose, though his rehabilitation was not com-plete until after his untimely death in 1954. Some of the US critics who had panned his art quietly (and often without owning up to their misjudgements) made a 180-degree course change. There are still many critics around who proudly wave Toscanini’s flag. I am not one of them.

Although those who have anointed Saint Arturo do not generally acknowledge it pub-licly, artists with whom Toscanini disagreed-and therefore usually also disliked personally-had an odd tendency to disappear from the scene shortly after his arrival. Thus Willem Mengelberg, who had played a prominent role as a principal guest conductor of the New York Philharmonic, never returned to New York after Toscanini took over as Music Director in the late 1920s. Furtwängler, who had been a prominent guest, likewise never returned. Moreover, Karl Muck, a really distinguished Wagnerian, whose performances of Parsifal at Bayreuth are even now legendary, left Bayreuth abruptly-and permanently-after Toscanini was engaged to conduct the work there in 1930. A funny set of coincidences, isn’t it?

These Toscanini recordings are from NBC broadcasts of February 22, 1941. The rehearsal excerpts take a little more than 20 minutes, which leaves a total time of 111 minutes for the concert itself. That’s really a long haul. The broadcast masters were usually on acetate 33 or 78 rpm 16-inch discs. They have been transferred to CDs using modern sound restoration techniques. Their sound is somewhat variable, but usually pretty good, with low noise levels, good frequency response and acceptable dynamic range. Most of these items were soon rerecorded and issued as regular 78-rpm RCA albums. The set is accompanied by extensive, well-written, and informative notes by William Youngren.

Although I don’t belong to the Toscanini fan club, I willingly admit that he was a great Wagner conductor. Not the greatest-Furtwängler aside, there’s Knappertsbusch, Richter, Walter, Böhm, Krauss, Karajan, Solti, Muck, Mahler, and, well, let’s move on. Never-theless, the Götterdämmerung excerpts are very impressive, with world-class singing by Lauritz Melchior and Helen Traubel, whose fresh and powerful soprano is put to splendid use in the Immolation Scene. Melchior, 51 years old at this point, near the end of his long operatic career, is in good form. He’s loud and powerful-not the most subtle tenor who ever lived, nor the most handsome, but surely the best-endowed vocally. The Immolation Scene goes well, with impressive singing and good orchestral support. Toscanini’s tempos are not all that fast, in some instances rather deliberate (19:10 for the Immolation, versus 19:51 for Furtwängler). Toscanini’s performances were my earliest introduction to this music and I still like them. But his Tristan prelude is coarse and hasty, and using the longish concert ending Wagner devised wasn’t a good idea. The Act I prelude to Lohengrin is rather fast, but its twin climaxes are powerfully effective and the strings play well. The Walküre excerpt offers the whole final scene of the first act, from Siegmund’s discovery of the sword to the end of Act I. It is generally very good, but Toscanini bites off the final orchestral chord mercilessly, giving it far less than its full notated duration.

It would be wrong to pretend that the NBC Orchestra is the equal of the New York Philharmonic of the 1930s. The NBC’s strings and woodwind are fine, but their brass tends to be loud, sharp, coarse, even ragged when pressed too hard. The NBC orchestra is also not an the level of Furtwängler’s Vienna and Berlin orchestras.

Furtwängler’s Berlin performances of the Tristan and Parsifal excerpts were recorded in 1938 an 78 rpm matrices, while the Vienna recordings were made after WW II, from 1949 to 1954. The Philharmonia Orchestra appears in the final scene of Götterdämmerung. Though all items except the ‘Dance of the Apprentices’ from Meistersinger have been released previously an CD, EMI has treated them to a sonic refurbishing and remastering using the latent digital technology, with excellent results. Even the 1938 recordings are remarkably clear and detailed, only slightly less brilliant than the later pieces, which are from magnetic tape Originals.

Furtwängler’s tempos are consistently slower than Toscanini’s. Though deliberate, and though much more flexible in tempo and rhythm, he is not excessively slow. His perfor-mances benefit from a richness of expressive content and a variety of tempos, tempo relationships, and larger structural matters that is unique. Each bar seems to have a slightly different structure. Fine as Toscanini’s Götterdämmerung excerpts are, they are outclassed not only sonically, but also musically. The VPO’s excellent brass section offers not only sheer volume but brilliance and refinement of tone as well. These performances are a little less loud, but far more subtle, refined, and detailed than Solti’s, also with the VPO. They convey weight, Brief, menace, and import like no others. The Immolation Scene was recorded a few years before the Rhine Journey and Funeral Music, and was originally dim, noisy, and somewhat distant sonically. That has all changed in this issue. It is now an the same sonic level as the other pieces. Moreover Kirsten Flagstad’s cool, clear, seemingly effortless portrayal is finer than everyone else’s, flawless in a technical sense but also unmatched musically and dramatically. Furtwängler accompanies splendidly, and the Philharmonia is not easily distinguished from the VPO.

The Tannhäuser, Lohengrin, and Holländer excerpts are also very well performed, spleen-didly played and recorded. The excellence of his treatments of the music from Tristan and Parsifal is so well documented as to require no further comment except to say that the sound in this edition is superior to anything achieved previously. There’s little to remind you that these pieces were first inscribed an 78-rpm masters.

In summary, though I find a lot to like in Toscanini’s accounts, my preference for Furtwängler’s art remains intact. For those who do not agree, this Toscanini collection will be of substantial interest, though it should be remembered that many of the Works it addresses are also available as RCA Studio recordings.
McKELVEY


International Record Review November 2003

Wagnermania September 2003 – www.wagnermania.com

Dirige de un modo completamente diferente al nuestro
pero, a su manera, magnífico.

(Gustav Mahler a Bruno Walter)

Guild ofrece por vez primera el célebre monográfico Wagner completo, respetando el orden de ejecución y los comentarios radiofónicos de Gene Hamilton (1), que Arturo Toscanini y su orquesta de la NBC ofrecieron en el Carnegie Hall de Nueva York el 22 de febrero de 1941. La Escena Tercera del Primer Acto de La Walkyria y ‘Amanecer, dúo y viaje de Sigfrido por el Rin’ de El ocaso de los dioses aparecieron en los volúmenes 52 y 53 (GD60264 y 09026-60304-2) de la magna Toscanini Collection de RCA en 1991 y 1992. El aria de salida de Elisabeth en el Segundo Acto de Tannhäuser, ‘Dich teure Halle’ ha circulado fugazmente en disco pirata (Memories HR 4161/3) pero, salvo error u omisión, el resto es novedad en CD. Inexplicablemente (2), Toscanini y Traubel volvieron a grabar dos días después del concierto, el 24 de febrero, la ‘Escena de la inmolación de Brunilda’, y esta toma de estudio, y no la registrada en vivo fue la que se editó comercialmente y se incorporó a la Toscanini Collection. A la espera de lo que depare la anunciada edición de Los maestros cantores de Nuremberg de Salzburgo 1937 (única grabación completa de una obra escénica de Wagner dirigida por Toscanini), en el sello Andante, que puede hacer historia si el sonido es bueno, este concierto es uno de los pocos testimonios hoy disponibles para evaluar el Wagner de Toscanini, quien en 1884, con 17 años, tocó el violonchelo en una representación de Lohengrin en Parma,  en 1895 dirigió en Turín el estreno italiano de El ocaso de los dioses, y en 1930 y 1931 asombró en Bayreuth.

El Preludio I de Lohengrin con que se abrió el programa recibe una de las más finas (¡y lentas!) realizaciones de cuantas se conservan de Toscanini (tres grabaciones de estudio y varias tomas en vivo). Comienza con extraordinaria lentitud y delicadeza, poniendo a prueba a los violines de la NBC. El regular sonido de Guild, inferior a los extraordinarios resultados alcanzados por Seth Winner para RCA en las selecciones del concierto que fueron editadas en la Toscanini Collection, no permite apreciar del todo ese aura, esa magia que el Maestro encontraba en este preludio y que lo deslumbró  cuando lo tocó en 1884. Tras un dramático y poderoso clímax, el Preludio concluye entre etéreos pianissimi. Un arco perfecto. El Preludio de Tristán e Isolda arranca con el maestro algo desconcentrado, quizá recordando aún las gloriosas oleadas sonoras procedentes de las gargantas de Traubel y Melchior, lo que propicia algunas vacilaciones de la orquesta. Las cosas se desarrollan más bien rutinariamente hasta 6’44’’, momento en que director y orquesta parecen despertar. No es una gran versión, ni de las mejores de Toscanini (3), pero resulta curiosa porque incorpora el raramente escuchado final de concierto que Richard Wagner compuso en 1859, y que William Youngren, autor de unas magníficas notas (muchos sellos deberían tomar nota) considera “edulcorado”. Yo lo prefiero a la versión habitual, que une la ‘Liebestod’ al Preludio. En concierto, Toscanini solía comenzar la ‘Música fúnebre de Sigfrido’ con la música que acompaña las últimas palabras del agonizante Sigfrido (“Brünnhilde! Heilige Braut!”), 46 compases antes de los golpes de timbal (4’19’’) y los ominosos arpegios ascendentes y descendentes de violonchelos y contrabajos. Es una lástima que con Melchior a mano se optase por tocar la parte orquestal, prescindiendo de la voz del tenor. Aquí hay elevadas dosis de tensión y precisión rítmica, una de las obsesiones del Maestro, pero no se alcanza la grandeza de la grabación de estudio de 1952 (BMG-RCA 74321-59482), una lectura intensa, dramática, de amplio aliento (más de 40 segundos más larga que la que aquí se comenta), una de las grandes grabaciones toscaninianas, que pone sordina a la común creencia de que, con la edad, el Maestro se volvió más brusco y favoreció los tempi más vivos. En el concierto de 1941 hubo también alguna ligera imprecisión, lo que motivó que orquesta y director registraran de nuevo la pieza en estudio el 14 de mayo de 1941, grabación que sí recibió la aprobación de Toscanini para su comercialización (BMG-RCA 09026-60304-2).

Mayor interés presentan las selecciones vocales. Era la tercera vez en cuatro temporadas al frente de la orquesta de la NBC que Toscanini programaba un monográfico Wagner.  El 5 de marzo de 1938 (primera temporada), y el 25 de febrero de 1939 (segunda temporada) ofreció piezas orquestales. Para esta ocasión el maestro parmesano contó con la colaboración de dos solistas de lujo: Lauritz Melchior, el mejor tenor heroico de todos los tiempos, y Helen Traubel, que poco después se convertiría en la primera soprano wagneriana de la MET tras la marcha de Kirsten Flagstad a Europa y la enfermedad de Marjorie Lawrence.

Helen Traubel puede parecer una Elisabeth demasiado opulenta para los tiempos actuales, en los que sopranos talla 40-42 que otrora harían Susannas y Nannettas (¡y gracias!) incorporan papeles wagnerianos de peso a su repertorio sin tener siquiera las notas, no hablemos del volumen vocal y la resistencia requeridos. La soprano de San Luis canta un excepcional ‘Dich teure Halle’, en el que hay alegría e introspección, fraseo exquisito, todo servido con la hermosísima, radiante voz de una soprano injustamente infravalorada. Esto es auténtico bel canto wagneriano. El acompañamiento del septuagenario maestro es vital y flexible. Atención a ese trémolo de cuerdas (3’33’’) que prepara el final.

Una vez abandonó los teatros de ópera, el fragmento no puramente orquestal de una obra de Wagner que Toscanini dirigió más veces en concierto fue la Escena Tercera del Primer Acto de La Walkyria. Dos veces la interpretó con la Filarmónica de Nueva York: en 1932 (con Paul Althouse y Elsa Ansen), 1934 (Paul Althouse y Gertrude Kapell). Tres con la NBC: esta que nos ocupa de 1941, en 1947 y 1949 (ambos con Set Svanholm y Rose Bampton). A sus cincuenta años Melchior está espléndido de voz, con un registro heroico inigualable, medias voces firmes, bien controladas, perfecto legato y dicción impecable. Toscanini no toleraba los alardes exhibicionistas de Melchior (4); así, sus dos ‘Wälse!’ le duran 7 y 6 segundos. El tenor danés se pliega a la férrea batuta, y se muestra más disciplinado que en otras ocasiones en el “Winterstürme” (CD 1, pista 7). En el segmento final, a partir de “Siegmund heiß ich”, Toscanini imprime un tempo infernal, trepidante, reflejo de la excitación del momento, pero que ahogaría a cualquier otro tenor. Melchior sale airoso, y aunque no ataca correctamente el terrible “Wälsungen-Blut” final, corrige sobre la marcha y resuelve eficazmente. Esta grabación es el único testimonio de la Siglinda de Traubel. Más Brunilda que Siglinda, como gran artista que era logra una convincente caracterización de la welsunga, muy expresiva. En “Der Männer Sippe” (pista 6) alterna el lirismo con las explosiones de júbilo y prodigiosas medias voces. Cuando suelta la voz, sale el sol, pero también es capaz de recogerla en un hilo, como después de “bis zum Heft haftet es drin” (CD 1, pista 6, 1’53’’). La técnica de Traubel es portentosa. En “O laß in Nähe / zu dir mich neigen” (pista 7, 4’45’’) se muestra delicada, femenina, frágil, y cierra esos versos con un hermoso filado sobre “zwingt” en “und so süß die Sinne mir zwingt”.

Durante su etapa norteamericana, Toscanini interpretó en numerosas ocasiones (y lo  grabó tres veces) un arreglo propio de ‘Amanecer y viaje de Sigfrido por el Rin’, del Prólogo de El ocaso de los dioses, que elimina el dúo. Esta es la única vez que dirigió el fragmento completo, dúo incluido. El ‘Amanecer’ (CD 2, pista 1), interludio orquestal entre la escena de las Nornas y el dúo, recibe aquí la interpretación más lenta de cuantas se conocen de Toscanini. El dúo es sensacional. Traubel frasea con nobleza y, sobre todo, con naturalidad: el canto parece su lenguaje materno, todo parece fluido y espontáneo. Melchior es un Sigfrido fogoso. En la parte final del dúo, desde “O heilige Götter!” ambos están pletóricos. La soprano ataca con miedo (Traubel siempre temía el Do agudo) el último “Heil!” y tiene que acortarlo, lo que desluce ligeramente el final. El ‘Viaje de Sigfrido por el Rin’ está animado de mucho impulso, más por la claridad de articulación y la transparencia de la orquesta toscaniniana que por el tempo en sí mismo. Toscanini se muestra en todo momento atento a la precisión rítmica, y su estilo,  comparado con el de los maestros alemanes de la dirección puede resultar poco flexible, metronómico. Algunos ataques resultan secos en exceso. En otros momentos la dirección es de un lirismo exquisito (pista 2, 4’08’’ a 5’00’’). El Maestro emplea el final de concierto de Engelbert Humperdink, que este firmante considera de un gusto pésimo. La orquesta es disciplinada, pero en ningún momento parece de primera fila. Sólo a partir de 1950 comenzó a sonar como una orquesta de gran categoría, de sonido refinado y con empaste.

La escena de la Inmolación de Brunilda es lo mejor del concierto, una de las más grandes jamás grabadas (5). Además de cantar maravillosamente, aquí sobresale ante todo la capacidad de penetración vocal de Traubel en los personajes, todo un prodigio. Nótese la expresividad de los versos “lautrer als Er / leibte kein Andrer” (pista 9, 4’21’’) y la explosión subsiguiente. En la pista 10, comienza con un “Wißt ihr, wie das ward?” a media voz, con un halo de misterio que poco a poco se torna en desafío. Toscanini acompaña a la perfección, con un  poderoso crescendo hasta 1’48’’. El pasaje desde “Alles, Alles, Alles weiß ich” (2’28’’) hasta “Ruhe, ruhe, du Gott!” es sublime; cantante y director están a la altura del momento, de la revelación, del fin necesario deseado por Wotan, y cuyo sentido al fin comprende Brunilda. Cuando menciona a los cuervos de Wotan la orquesta parece entonar las últimas campanadas. El final es grandioso. En su última aparición, el motivo de la redención irrumpe con gran serenidad y lirismo.

Como complemento, Guild ha tenido el acierto de incluir 20 minutos de ensayos orquestales de la Tercera Escena del Primer Acto de La Walkyria, con excelente sonido. Durante la preparación del concierto del 6 de abril de 1947 (Preludio y ‘Encantamientos del Viernes Santo’ de Parsifal y Tercera Escena del Primer Acto de La Walkyria, con Set Svanholm y Rose Bampton) se grabaron tres horas y media de ensayos de los días 2 y 3. En 1990 el sello Myto editó un álbum impagable de dos CDs (2 MCD 903.16), con más de dos horas de ensayos, con y sin cantantes, y el ensayo general completo del día 5. Los fragmentos ofrecidos por Guild, correspondientes a “Der Männer Sippe” (desde poco antes de “O fänd’ ich ihn heut’” hasta el “Winterstürme”) y el final (desde que Sigmundo extrae la espada del tronco) no fueron incluidos en el álbum de Myto. Aún sin entender todos los comentarios del director, en una mezcla de inglés e italiano con fuerte acento de Parma, contemplamos como, entre risas, gritos, broncas  y arranques de furia (“Corpo del vostro Dio!”), Toscanini va moldeando el sonido de su orquesta, reajustando continuamente tempo y dinámicas. La ausencia de voces permite apreciar la complejidad y riqueza de la orquestación wagneriana, además de servir para una improvisada sesión de karaoke. El único que canta es el Maestro, que con ochenta años cumplidos  desborda vitalidad, y lo canta todo, con su característica voz quebrada.

El comentario que encabeza la reseña se refería, claro, a Arturo Toscanini, en concreto a la impresión de Mahler tras presenciar una función de Tristán e Isolda en Nueva York en 1909. Con los discos de la Toscanini Collection de RCA descatalogados y convertidos en objeto de coleccionista, y el álbum doble de la fallida serie Immortal Toscanini (BMG-RCA 74321-59482) de difícil localización, este álbum que ahora ofrece Guild con sonido variable pero bastante aceptable es el mejor modo de acercarse al Wagner de este genial y controvertido (6) director, que dirigía “diferente”, favoreciendo las texturas transparentes frente a las densidades que suelen asociarse con este repertorio, con un instinto dramático y un dinamismo extraordinarios. A la espera de que Diverdi se decida a importarlo y distribuirlo en nuestro país, puede adquirirse directamente a través de la web del sello Guild (www.guildmusic.com), donde se pueden escuchar algunos fragmentos. También puede adquirirse a través de tiendas  que operan en internet, como www.jpc.de. Sería también deseable que algún sello reeditase el último concierto del Maestro (7), su despedida como músico en activo tras una carrera de sesenta y ocho años, celebrado el 4 de abril de 1954. Si bien debido a la tensión del momento los resultados artísticos fueron inferiores a los de otras ocasiones, la grabación esteorofónica, de gran calidad técnica para la época, permite disfrutar del “sonido Toscanini”, famoso en su época, y no siempre llevado correctamente al disco
Miguel A. Gonzalez-Barrio


Music Web Monday September 01 03

This is a fascinating product, with excellent and informed accompanying notes by William Youngren, who refers conscientiously to other extant recorded alternatives left by the maestro (he also almost provides a review of the present performances). Even broadcast commentaries are kept to a minimum, and the first disc starts straight into a tender account of the Lohengrin Act 1 Prelude. Here is an example of Toscanini the structuralist, keeping the orchestra within piano for an extended period with miraculous control and conveying a compelling religiosity, working hypnotically towards the climax (which does, admittedly, threaten to distort). This Prelude will always challenge an orchestra, especially at the very opening of a concert, and the NBC strings acquit themselves luminously.

Helen Traubel joins the NBC forces for ‘Dich, teure Halle’ from Tannhäuser. Robert Farr, in his review of this product (http://www.musicweb.uk.net/classrev/2003/July03/Wagner_Toscanini1941.htm), provides excellent background for this singer. Suffice it for me to say that one is left in no doubt of Traubel’s resolve, nor of the orchestra’s excellence (the Toscaninian drilling of the strings obviously paying rich dividends). This excerpt functions as an excellent entrée to the meat course of the first disc, Act 1 Scene 3 of Walküre, a near half-hour segment (the late-comers referred to in the broadcast commentary should feel appropriately shamed, for they missed a treat!).

Traubel is joined by the 50 year old Lauritz Melchior for the final 26 minutes of Walküre Act 1 (beginning the orchestral passage preceding ‘Ein Schwert verhiess mir der Vater’). Melchior is wonderfully strong throughout his register, completely immersed in his role as hero; Traubel is consistently gripping. As with Melchior, her voice encompasses the wide range Wagner asks for with ease and has all of the requisite strength (try her entry at ‘Du bist der Lenz’, or her naming of her companion as ‘Siegmund’). But it is Toscanini who provides the thread that binds it all together, dragging the listener in.

Which is not to say he does not get carried away in the heat of the moment. Melchior does not (or is not allowed to) dwell on the first cry of ‘Wälse’ and as the music hurtles onwards, words can count for very little (blink and you miss Traubel’s ‘So bist du ein Wälsung’). A similar situation arises at Melchior’s cry of ‘zu mir’ immediately preceding the sword-extraction. A pity also that Traubel seems closer to the microphone than Melchior at the end (‘Braut und Schwester’ emerges distanced and muffled).

The Tristan Prelude is imbued with a seemingly unstoppable momentum as it moves inexorably towards its climax. Its ending might initially strike the listener as puzzling: Toscanini uses the perfunctory 1859 concert ending rather than having the two pizzicato cello and bass notes lead into the Verklärung. This leaves a curiously incomplete, insubstantial feel, especially as in the present Guild issue this piece closes the first disc.

The second disc consists primarily of Götterdämmerung excerpts. Concentration is the keyword here, which coupled with Toscanini’s interpretative security makes for a winning combination. A powerful force runs through the Funeral March and the orchestra seems positively alight in the Immolation. Traubel seems less internally illuminated, however. She seems to be saving herself for the high notes, and her ‘Edra impression’ (‘Alles weiss ich’) is superficial and unconvincing.

The 1947 rehearsal sequence is an interesting addendum. Toscanini, alone with his orchestra, is intense and passionate. It is worth hearing the first excerpt just to hear him croak and groan his way through the missing vocal lines. Not to mention his echt-Italinate pronunciation of ‘Rehearsal Number 6’, with ‘number’ emerging as the result of some ‘Google’ search decades before its time (‘Noooooooooooomber 6’, he says).

The second excerpt contains one of his famous outbursts (read ‘tantrums’): ‘Why don’t you play before? Tell me why! I am not stupid …’. Does anyone dare to talk to an orchestra like this these days, I wonder?.

Rewarding listening, then. This is a valuable document, well worth acquiring.
Colin Clarke


MusicWeb Thursday June 19 03

Guild claims this to be the first time the complete performance of this concert has been available commercially. As a bonus, 20 minutes from an April 1947 rehearsal of Act 1 scene 3 of Die Walküre are added. Toscanini rehearsals were renowned and always worth listening to, if only for the excitement of wondering if one of his famous ‘explosions’ might be included!

Toscanini’s conducting of Wagner was inclined to divide contemporary critics and has continued to do so, with the ‘anti’ faction contending that his interpretations were too ‘Italianate’ and not sufficiently architectural. Certainly the opening Lohengrin Prelude ‘CD1 tr.1’ is in no way sensuously melodic in interpretation. The conductor builds from a very slow start, where the violins do well to hold the legato line, to a climax at around 6 mins, declining to the softest of finishes; certainly architectural structuring to my ears. However, the matter of Toscanini and tempi is more contentious. In a long and informed essay in the booklet, William Youngren discusses the variety of tempi the conductor adopted in different performances of a Wagner work. He analyses three performances of the Lohengrin Prelude, finding the one included here ‘as slow and spacious as the 1936 performance but as dramatic and lyrical as that of the 1941’ (available on Naxos Historical and RCA/BMG respectively). Youngren expresses disappointment with the ‘Tristan’ Prelude, ‘CD1 tr.10’, and certainly the performance is somewhat flat, perhaps a reaction to the vocal items that had gone just before (in that respect I assume the recording is sequenced as the original concert).

I suspect that it will be the vocal items that will draw potential purchasers, particularly the presence of Helen Traubel and Lauritz Melchior. Traubel, American by birth, gained greatly by the polio that afflicted Marjorie Lawrence in 1941 and Flagstad’s retirement from the ‘Met’ the same year, the two having shared the heavy Wagnerian soprano roles at that theatre for the previous 6 years. Born in 1899, Traubel remained the leading Wagnerian soprano at the ‘Met’ until 1953 when she fell out with Rudolf Bing, the austere chief there, about her cabaret appearances! Her Wagnerian credentials are clearly set out in ‘Dich, teure Halle’, Elisabeth’s aria from Act 2 of Tannhaüser, ‘CD1 tr.3’, when she starts appropriately joyously with clear declamation and full tone before becoming more introspective. In the final scene from Act 1 of ‘Die Walküre’, she is joined by the 50-year-old Melchior, renowned as perhaps the greatest ‘heldentenor’ ever. His strong voice, with light baritonal overtones, encompasses every demand that Wagner makes in this highly dramatic scene as the singers are matched by Toscanini’s grasp of the drama. Wagner enthusiasts will enjoy comparing this performance with that conducted by Leinsdorf on December 6th 1941 with the same duo (Naxos Historical).

The second CD continues where the Die Walküre finished, in terms of quality of performance as well as operatic sequence, as we move to Götterdämmerung; the two singers matching each other for dramatic thrust. Toscanini gives them time to phrase, but without any loss of dramatic intensity. ‘Brünnhilde’s Immolation’, trs.9-13, allows direct comparison with Flagstad on Guild’s recent ‘Dream Cycle’ issue of the opera. Traubel may not be the Norwegian’s equal, but who except Nilsson has bettered her since?

Whatever one’s view of Toscanini and Wagner, every lover of the composer’s work will want these well recorded discs, not merely to enjoy for their own sake, but to compare, contrast, and use to argue their particular viewpoint as to the conductor’s interpretation of the composer’s work.
Robert J. Farr