Notes and Editorial Reviews
Arturo Toscanini, cond; Licia Albanese (
); Jan Peerce (
); Robert Merrill (
); Maxine Stellman (
); Arthur Newman (
); George Cehanovsky (
MUSIC & ARTS 4271, mono (2 CDs: 113:57)
The several and various problems that modern listeners have with the recorded legacy of Arturo Toscanini are too many and too complex in nature to go into in the course of a single review. They need to be touched on in a book that has not yet been written, though Mortimer Frank has touched on many of them in his liner notes for various Toscanini reissues. In sum, however, they involve the strange, flat, two-dimensional sound of most of the recordings, the incredibly fast speeds at which he took most (but certainly not all) music, and what many hear as a surface excitement that does not penetrate into the heart of the music. There are far too many exceptions to this rule to mention here, but most of them are not present on this unique document.
Though Toscanini drove his musicians and singers hard in rehearsal, the music-making there was usually more relaxed and more emotionally involved than at the public performances. Toscanini, having a nervous temperament by nature, often tensed up during his first public concert of each work, becoming more relaxed with each succeeding performance. This is one reason why his New York Philharmonic broadcasts, given on Sunday afternoons and the third performance of each week, are generally finer and less tense than the NBC performances, which were one-time-only events. Sometimes, of course, the magic happened at the recorded concert, but almost as often it did not. This particular sound document of rehearsals, especially if compared to the RCA recording made from the broadcasts that followed, is an ear-opener.
In Verdi, as in Beethoven (and Brahms, and Strauss), Toscanini’s insistence on fast tempos has been borne out by latter-day study of both the published and autograph scores of the operas. Here, the only tempo that is played faster than the score—though the score does not include a metronome marking at that point—is the opening party music of act III. Otherwise, Toscanini’s tempos, as Carlos Kleiber’s in his equally excellent but less febrile recording of the opera for Deutsche Grammophon, are exactly as Verdi wrote them or slower.
But tempo alone is not the reason why this recording will live forever. The reason is that, finally for once, the fabled electric atmosphere that Toscanini was supposedly able to create in rehearsals was caught on record. This
is almost “possessed” in a way that one must hear to believe. From the very first notes of the act I Prelude, taken at a much slower tempo than he usually used, to the closing crashing bars of the finale, the performance has an almost eerie, indescribable life force that imbues everyone involved. Every voice and instrument tingles with an energy that is not entirely their own. The music leaps from the speakers, fully realized in terms of musical accuracy and dramatic intensity. Even the usually wooden singing (however splendid in tonal luxuriance) of Peerce and Merrill has an involvement here that is not present on the broadcast version. Albanese, in particular, is much more involved dramatically, presenting a Violetta as intense as those legendary interpretations of Maria Callas, Anna Moffo, Teresa Stratas, and Ileana Cotrubas.
What makes this document unique, and instructive in a way not intended by its leader, are the vocal interjections of Toscanini himself. Alone among the performers at these rehearsals, he is completely unaware that something strange and extraordinary is happening. He is so wrapped up in his passion to get it right, the way he wants it, that he simply sings along or yells instructions (and an invective or two) at the musicians and singers as they progress. He alone does not seem to realize that this
is possessed, possibly because he is an inadvertent spell-caster. The energy flows from him, as it sometimes did from Furtwängler, Cluytens, Karajan, Mitropoulos, Munch, and Kleiber, but the source of the energy is too engrossed in the hard work that generated such energy to notice its existence.
The liner notes for this release indicate that although most of the material stems from two rehearsal dates, 11/30 and 12/7/1946, snippets also come from earlier rehearsals that are undated. No matter. Recording dates for a performance such as this mean nothing. This is an event for which time stood still, and no “time” existed except for the musical progression as it left Toscanini’s baton and electrically communicated itself to the participants. Reason enough for induction into
’s Classical Hall of Fame.
FANFARE: Lynn René Bayley
Works on This Recording
La traviata by Giuseppe Verdi
Johanne Morland (Soprano),
Licia Albanese (Soprano),
Maxine Stellman (Mezzo Soprano),
John Garris (Baritone),
Robert Merrill (Baritone),
George Cehanovsky (Baritone),
Paul Dennis (Bass),
Arthur Newman (Bass),
Jan Peerce (Tenor)
NBC Symphony Orchestra
Written: 1853; Italy
Date of Recording: 11/1946
Venue: New York City
Length: 103 Minutes 52 Secs.
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