Reviews

GHCD 2218/19/20 – TOSCANINI – All Berlioz Concert – Rehearsal 1947, Swarthout – Garris – Moscona- Harrell – NBC 1947

NBC SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA, Arturo Toscanini – Conductor, Swarthout, Garris, Moscona

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Toscanini conducts Berlioz: an update, February 2008

A few weeks ago I received a letter from Richard Caniell, the sound engineer behind Immortal Performances Recorded Music Society. In this he told me that he had always been dissatisfied with the first of the three CDs in this set because it was “far below the quality of our master.” In his view the sound on this disc was “lacking in bass and wrong in sound levels.” Quite a bit of further work has clearly been done to try to rectify the problems and he sent me a replacement CD to audition.

Having done a detailed A/B comparison I can report that the re-mastered transfer represents a significant advance on the original, which I’ll call Version I.

This is apparent right at the start of the first movement, ‘Introduction’. In Version I the upper strings sounded very wiry in the opening fugato. In Version II there’s much more body to the upper strings and the bass has considerably more body. In the next movement, ‘Prologue’, the sound of the choir was quite acceptable in Version I but there’s much more definition on Version II. In ‘Roméo Seul’ (track 6) the violins were wiry at the start in Version I. This has been tamed in Version II and the sound is much more pleasing. The sound of the woodwind around 1:20 has a degree of greater warmth in Version II.


Pittsburgh Gazette

Legendary conductor Arturo Toscanini didn’t like making recordings, but although many of his concert performances also have been released commercially, the new Guild Historical set of all-Berlioz concerts gains important value from inclusion of rehearsals as well.

Two concerts in February 1947 included the complete “Romeo and Juliet” Symphony by Hector Berlioz, as well as one scene from “The Damnation of Faust.” Toscanini championed Berlioz’ unusual “dramatic symphony” on Shakespeare’s play — in which singing sets the scene for instrumental expression of feelings. The Guild CDs are the first release of the “Queen Mab” Scherzo from these concerts, as well as the scene from “The Damnation of Faust.”

The combination of passion and elegance Toscanini achieves in the “Love Music” from the setting of Shakespeare’s play is probably unequaled since this performance. The relaxed mood the conductor achieves in the opening and closing will surprise anyone who buys the stereotype of Toscanini being too tense.

Hearing rehearsals enriches the CD release in many ways. One not only hears Toscanini shaping the music, such as the first violins’ playing of the opening of “Romeo Alone,” but his care with inner voices brings that music to our ears more clearly. After listening to the rehearsal, the performance is likely to be more fully appreciated.

Then, too, one hears Toscanini struggling to achieve the technical finesse from his players. Listening to old recording means accepting less-accurate ensemble and intonation than we expect today. At one point, Toscanini is disgusted and slams the score shut, before controlling himself and finally saying, “Isn’t it a shame to hear this out of tune?”

Yet the coherence with which Toscanini put together his performances, the integrity that by no means precluded passion, makes his contributions continually relevant. Bass boost is needed for reasonably realistic Carnegie Hall sound.
Mark Kanny


Gramophone July 2003

Replay – Rob Cowan on recent reissues and treasures from the archives

Spoilt for choice

When Arturo Toscanini heard Serge Koussevitzky conduct Mozart’s B flat Divertimento for horn and strings, K287 he was so appalled that he decided to programme the work himself – ‘for Koussevitzky’s benefit’, apparently. The idea might seem arrogant, but the evidence, both on commercial record (RCA) and on a Guild CD of a broadcast from the same period, is positively Beechamesque in its elegance and piquant phrasing. Toscanini’s broadcast and recording differ from each other in tiny detail, enough to warrant closer comparison, but the real find on this recent Guild ‘twofer’ – at least for those who missed various past incarnations – is a rehearsal and performance of the Haffner Symphony, Toscanini’s Mozart at its most persuasive. Both works, plus a Magic Flute Overture, were played early in November 1947.

Readers who, like me, harbour minor reservations concerning a 1944 collaboration between Toscanini and Rudolf Serkin in Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto can now compare it with a performance that Serkin, Toscanini and the New York Philharmonic gave in 1936 as part of Serkin’s New York concert début. Greater subtlety and musicality are only occasionally clouded by inferior sound quality and the companion performance of Mozart’s K595 is equally arresting.

Toscanini’s rehearsals could on occasion be more riveting than his concert performances – Dvořák’s Scherzo capriccioso, for example (Naxos). Berlioz’s Roméo et Juliette, too, burns brighter in rehearsal and is newly released (together with the full performance) by Guild with Scene 6 from The Damnation of Faust added. Even those who already own the slightly brighter RCA transfer of the full performance stand to learn from the extensive rehearsal….


BBC Music Magazine – January 2003

What a relief to turn instead to OTTO KLEMPERER’s 1951 Holland Festival broadcast performance of Mahler’s Resurrection with the Concertgebouw Orchestra and soloists Kathleen Ferrier and Jo Vincent on glorious form. Although, like Schuricht, Klemperer opts for fast tempi and eschews overstated rubato, there’s so much more subtlety and drive in his interpretation. While this outstandingly dynamic performance has already appeared on a mid-price Decca CD, the new transfer on Guild Historical has great immediacy, and the documentation, which extends to 26 pages and includes full texts and translations, is extraordinarily generous given the price of the disc.

Two more releases of broadcast material from concerts conducted by ARTU RO TOSCANINI, also an Guild, deserve the widest dissemination. The 1947 NBC Symphony Orchestra performance of Berlioz’s Romeo and Juliet is riveting from start to finish, and a bonus CD, featuring extended excerpts from the maestro’s rehearsals for the concert, conveys an almost unparalleled degree of energy and involvement in the music. The other CD provides excerpts from a 1942 War Bond Concert and a full programme of the Vaughan Williams Tallis Fantasia,  Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Overture and Brahms’s Third from 1938. The Brahms is particularly strong – a far more expansive and fluid performance than the better- known RCA recording of 1952.


Musicweb Thursday September 26 02

This is an issue of great interest both to admirers of Toscanini and of Berlioz. Toscanini was a noted interpreter of the French master but during his career only a few of Berlioz’s works were performed with any regularity by anyone and so Toscanini’s Berlioz repertory was probably more narrow than he would have wished. Certainly, at the time these performances were given complete performances of Romeo and Juliet in the USA would have been pretty rare. Indeed, I wonder if many of Toscanini’s NBC orchestra had ever played the whole piece before.

What we have here is a recording of live performances given as two successive Sunday afternoon broadcast concerts (the length of Romeo necessitated a break after the ‘Queen Mab’ scherzo and the remaining five numbers and the extracts from The Damnation were broadcast the following week.) The otherwise excellent and comprehensive notes do not specify the recording location but the rather cramped acoustics suggest that the venue was Studio 8H and I have been able to establish that this is in fact the case. Given the nature of the work it is a shame that the more spacious acoustics of Carnegie Hall could not have been used but I suppose this would have been completely impractical at that time. As it is, one soon adjusts to the sonic limitations, focusing instead on the performance itself, which is of high quality.

Toscanini launches into the music of the ‘Introduction’ (disc 1, track2) headlong with biting attack. Momentarily I feared that the performance might be one of his more driven, high-octane renditions but this proved not to be the case at all. To be sure, it is a reading which is high on drama where the score calls for it but there is no shortage of sensitivity and nuances either. Indeed, I toyed with the idea of listening to the performance with a break to see what it might have been like for the 1947 radio audience but I found the performance too involving to do anything but to listen right through.

In the ‘Prelude’ (track 3) the smallish-sounding chorus is balanced very closely for their narration. This was quite clearly a deliberate production device since for their other contributions they are placed much more backwardly. On balance I preferred the more distant balancing; the singers are far too prominent in the ‘Prelude’, I feel. The (unnamed) chorus generally sing well and though they are clearly not a Francophone ensemble their French is quite serviceable.

In general Toscanini is well served by his three soloists, all members of the Metropolitan Opera. The mezzo, Gladys Swarthout, has a warm voice and sings the ‘Strophes’ (track 4) with warmth and feeling (less than a week before she had broken her knee and her leg was in plaster but there is no suggestion in her singing of any discomfort.) The tenor, John Garris sings his difficult role in the succeeding ‘Scherzetto’ (track 5) very well. He has a nice nasal tone, very appropriate for singing in French, and his articulation (and that of the choir) is excellent. I was a little less sure about Nicola Moscona, who sings Friar Laurence in the concluding numbers. His sonorous and dramatic voice is heard to best advantage in ‘Rix des Capulets et des Montagus’ (disc 2, track 1). However, in ‘Pauvres enfants’ which follows (track 2) I would have preferred a more gentle, sorrowing manner; Moscona is rather one-dimensional. Furthermore, his French is far from completely accurate.

There is a great deal to admire in the purely orchestral items. ‘Roméo Seul’ is eloquently phrased and Toscanini and his players capture well the mood of adolescent melancholy. This is one of several occasions where the Maestro can be heard singing along (disc 1, track 6, 2’27″). I don’t mind this too much – it’s all part of the occasion and, in any case, the passionate lyricism of Berlioz’s music, to say nothing of the singing tone of the NBC violins, would tempt anyone to join in!

The Ball music (disc 1, track 7) sweeps along exhilaratingly. However, here I did feel the music was driven along a bit fiercely. Sir Colin Davis, on his live LSO account, finds more spring, lilt and infectious gaiety in the music, I believe. Interestingly, I preferred the treatment of the rhythms and phrasing in this section in the rehearsal sequence (disc 3, track 1).

For me, the wonderful ‘Scène d’Amour’ is the highlight of the whole work. What a marvellously atmospheric orchestrator Berlioz was! In this movement his skills as an orchestrator, his melodic gifts and his harmonic genius are all displayed at their greatest. Toscanini conjures a loving, highly atmospheric performance. I have to say, though, that I think Sir Colin is even finer here and not just as a result if up to date recorded sound. His speeds are slower but beneficially so, I think. In particular, when the main adagio is reached (disc 1, track 8, 8’36″) I believe Toscanini is just a bit too quick. Davis takes a full three minutes longer from this point to the end of the movement and conveys marvellously not just the emotions of the two young lovers but also the sense of a warm, starlit Italian night, the air scented with jasmine. This is not to say that Toscanini’s rendition will disappoint but I think he is perhaps just a little too clear-eyed here.

The following movement, the ‘Queen Mab Scherzo’, has interest in its own right. The performance of Romeo was issued on records by RCA but it was incomplete. Toscanini refused to sanction the release of this one movement on account of some fluffs by the horns. In fact, RCA made something of a virtue of this in their publicity at the time, citing the Maestro’s refusal to issue a flawed performance as a sign of quality and artistic integrity. (The publicity material is quoted in Joseph Horowitz’s book, Understanding Toscanini, p.277) The work was eventually re-released complete by RCA with the addition of a 1951 take of the ‘Queen Mab’ scherzo. However, for this issue Guild have restored the 1947 account, having repaired the faulty horn notes by inserting correct notes (precisely how they have done this and how many notes were inserted and where is not vouchsafed but I don’t think this matters much; only the most demanding of purists would object to this minor bit of editing.)

Returning to the music, the second concert was completed by a performance of Scene six from The Damnation of Faust. Again, I suspect that this was a work which was unfamiliar to most people at the time, at least in its complete form though the liner notes record that Toscanini gave some complete (and staged) performances in the early twentieth century – but not in the USA.

The Scene comprises four musical items. First comes the short orchestral interlude depicting the glades and meadows on the banks of the Elbe. Then the American baritone, Mack Harrell (another Metropolitan Opera singer and father of the cellist, Lyn Harrell) sings the exquisite solo for Mephistopheles, ‘Voici des Roses’. Harrell has a lovely light and airy tone, just right for this piece, and his French is excellent. The succeeding ‘Chorus of Gnomes and Sylphes’ is a bit of a disappointment. The diction of the chorus is poor, even following the words I found it hard to tell what they were singing and, perversely, Guild don’t provide the texts here though the full libretto and translation is supplied for Romeo and Juliet. (I should emphasise that this was not a fault in Romeo itself.) Furthermore, the ensemble, as recorded, is a bit mushy and as a result there is little atmosphere in what is a highly atmospheric piece. By the way, the tenor who sings the little interpolations as the snoozing Faust is unnamed. It is only fair to report, however, that the orchestral playing in the concluding number, ‘Dance of the Sylphs’, has gossamer lightness and elfin delicacy. What a shame the audience breaks in immediately with enthusiastic applause.

The set is then completed with the inclusion of a very substantial sequence of Toscanini rehearsing Romeo and Juliet. We have nearly the whole work again. All that is missing is the ‘Scène d’Amour’ (what a pity!). Actually, there was no recording of the rehearsal of the ‘Queen Mab Scherzo’. However, for the sake of completeness Guild have included a recording of the rehearsal of ‘Queen Mab’ for the 1951 broadcast. It is surprising how few times Toscanini stops during the rehearsal. There are frequent verbal instructions or encouragements to the players, almost all of them pretty clear, but there are not too many breaks in the flow – and not one single eruption of temper! It’s very interesting to hear Toscanini at work, shaping points of detail. Having said that, I wonder how many people will want to listen through more than once. However, for the student of Toscanini or of conducting it’s a fascinating document. I was aware of more surface noise in these sequences. Guild are unable to specify the date of the rehearsal as that information was apparently unavailable to them but they do know that the venue was Studio 8H so it’s a fair assumption that what we have preserved here is the dress rehearsal.

The rehearsal tape has never been issued before. I’m indebted to Guild for telling me that the Damnation excerpts were once available on an LP issued by the now-defunct Toscanini Society (Dallas) but they don’t believe the performance has been available on CD before. There has been a previous incarnation of this Romeo on CD as it was briefly available as part of RCA’s comprehensive Toscanini edition but it has been unavailable for quite some time. For this release Guild have gone back to masters made at the time by Richard Gardner for RCA’s Riverdale Project, an attempt by RCA to issue some of Toscanini’s 1940s and 1950s broadcasts with his sanction. Guild have quite deliberately eschewed any filtering so as to present as close as possible a representation of what the NBC radio audiences would have heard at the time. (This is all explained in more detail in the booklet.) This policy has extended to retention of the broadcast announcements and the applause. The (enthusiastic) applause is consistently too prompt after the music has finished but after all we are listening to a live concert. As for the commentaries, they are separately tracked so you can avoid them but I felt that they added something of a period feel and some ambience.

The recorded sound inevitably has its limitations and listeners well versed in Toscanini recordings made in Studio 8H will have a fair idea of what to expect. There are sonic restrictions; the bass is often light, especially in the strings and the final tableau in Romeo is undoubtedly congested. However, none of this seriously detracts from enjoyment of Toscanini’s virtuoso performance, I think.

Guild’s documentation is extremely comprehensive and authoritative. If I have a complaint it is that The Damnation receives slightly short shrift both as to the lack of a text and far less in the way of notes than the main work.

However, this is a most important release to which I have listened with great interest. Admirers of the great Italian conductor will need no encouragement to acquire the set and it should be equally attractive to lovers of Berlioz’s music. The general listener, too, will find a great deal here to enjoy. A most recommendable historic set.
John Quinn

Classics Today Tuesday September 17 02

Collectors who can’t locate RCA’s reissue of Toscanini’s justly fabled Berlioz Roméo et Juliette with the NBC Symphony (the two-part broadcast of February 9 & 16, 1947) naturally will wonder about Guild’s alternative edition. The latter transfer essentially stems from tapes made by Richard Gardner in the 1950s from original “inside source” broadcast lacquers. Unlike RCA, Guild retains the original broadcast announcements and includes the taut, thrilling performance of Scene Seven from The Damnation of Faust that “filled out” the February 16th concert (with Mack Harrell in top form as Mephistopheles). When Toscanini auditioned Roméo et Juliette for possible release, he asked that the Queen Mab Scherzo be replaced with his commericial 1951 recording, a request RCA granted. Guild restores the 1947 broadcast Queen Mab. In addition, Guild offers nearly two hours’ worth of rehearsal material where Toscanini painstakingly works out balancing of chords, dynamics, and articulation with the utmost specificity, professionalism, and focus. And those expecting the Maestro to heap baton-breaking abuse upon his musicians will be surprised to hear the conductor’s frequent words of courtesy and concern.

Producer Richard Caniell’s annotations claim the Gardner tapes to sound better, with orchestral voices “more natural in timbre” and a “thrilling sheen” from the strings “not hearable” from the RCA commercial set. He goes on to mention “certain intangibles” lost in the RCA reissue that contribute to the “fullness and definition of the strings in the Love Music” as heard here. To my ears, however, these claims describe RCA’s digital restorations, which reveal a clearer, more defined mid-range and a real bottom to the orchestral image. The basic sound, to be sure, is dry and dynamically constricted, with high string writing that turns strident at loud moments. If the latter bothers you, just turn down the treble, and you’ll approximate Guild’s patina without Guild’s tape hiss. Whichever CD edition you choose, Toscanini’s energetic, disciplined, and lyrically tensile leadership matches the music’s passion, vitality, and color. His outstanding singers bring impressive beauty and roundness of tone to their solo and ensemble work, with relaxed authority and superb diction to match. Guild’s completeness factor and generous rehearsal material will entice Toscanini buffs, but keep the immediacy and superior ambience of RCA’s transfer in mind.
Jed Distler