Notes and Editorial Reviews
Toscanini first conducted this work when he was 19 at Rio in 1886. In the succeeding years in Italy and elsewhere he conducted it dozens of times with singers of the calibre of Bellincioni, Bori, Dalla Rizza and Muzio as Violetta. He came to record it, at live broadcasts, in 1946, an incredible 60 years after he first directed the opera in the theatre and 20 after he last conducted it there, at La Scala. Received opinion has always given his reading the thumbs down as being too fast and peremptory, unheeding of his singers, and altogether too dictatorial. I have never adhered to that view and renewed listening has only enhanced my admiration for Toscanini's reading of the score. As Harvey Sachs points out in his invaluable note for this reissue, Toscanini followed the traditional theatre cuts (approved by Verdi?) and tinkered with the orchestration. So much for him keeping to Holy Writ.
That said, his interpretation, and this is what matters, fulfils Verdi's intentions to the hilt. The work is surely conceived through the nervous, overheated passions and feelings of the heroine. From first to last we are enveloped in her world—hectic in Act 1, desperate for true love in Act 2 scene 1, lonely and rejected in scene 2 (where Toscanini, by keeping Violetta up to the mark, never allows for sentimentality) and tragic in Act 3. By his close observation of the instrumental nuts and bolts, and by his highly individual and inspiriting control of his orchestra, the feeling of desperation on Violetta's part that courses through the score, which is of the essence, is always there, felt in stabbing string phrases and plangent wind. The sound is lean, tense and excitable. Listen to the gambling duel between Alfredo and the Baron—has it ever sounded as taut and menacing as this?
No, the trouble with this set is not Toscanini but his singers, none of whom is near ideal. What one would give for a Toscanini recording with Bori, Muzio, Callas or Scotto! Albanese catches Violetta's desperation but only by adding lacrymose touches to the line, itself often bumpy (three breaths in the first phrase of ''Addio del passato''), actually sobbing in Acts 2 and 3, and seldom producing the full tone many passages require. In sum, the performance is melodramatic in the wrong way, nowhere more so than in the letter reading. Peerce sings strongly and with due passion, but shows no sense of a Verdian style—practically everything is punched out in a monotonous forte—and pays no attention to Verdi's dynamic markings. By contrast, Merrill is too subdued and detached. His young baritone is mellow and pleasing, but the authority and eloquence of an experienced Giorgio Germont, such as Amato (who once sang the role with Toscanini), Tibbett or Bruson is missing. All the smaller roles are inadequately cast.
As Kleiber (DG, 3/86) and Muti (EMI, 11/87) come close to achieving Toscanini's incandescence and have far superior casts, they must remain recommendations for a conductor's Traviata. Kleiber makes the same cuts as Toscanini; Muti plays the score exactly as Verdi wrote it. Of course, if you want the greatest Violetta you must go to Callas (EMI, 11/87 and 2/91). Even so, I wouldn't want to be without Toscanini's version because of its historic importance and because of his blazing, uncompromising sincerity of purpose. The new transfers do what they can to ameliorate the close, confined recording in the notorious Studio 8-H, but, of course, nothing can eradicate Toscanini's own singing 'counterpoint' to some passages.'
-- Alan Blyth, Gramophone [4/1992]