> Hector Berlioz - Romeo & Juliet, Damnation of Faust [JQ]: Classical CD Reviews- Oct 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869):
Romeo and Juliet [100’ 08"]
The Damnation of Faust (excerpts)* [17’58"]
Rehearsal sequences: Romeo and Juliet [110’21"]
(Broadcast commentaries included)
Gladys Swarthout (mezzo soprano); John Garris (tenor); Nicola Moscona (bass);
*Mack Harrell (baritone)
Chorus and The NBC Symphony Orchestra
conducted by Arturo Toscanini
Recorded in NBC Studio 8H on 9 and 16 February 1947 (Romeo and Juliet) and 16 February 1947 (Damnation of Faust). Recording date of rehearsal sequence unknown.
GUILD HISTORICAL GHCD 2218/20 [228’27"]


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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

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.

The most significant improvements have been effected in ‘Fête et Bal’ and in ‘Scène d’amour’, my favourite part of the whole work. In the former there was a distinctly boxy feel to the sound in Version I. This has now been opened up and there is much more roundness to the sound. Furthermore, in Version I it was very difficult to discern what was going on in the accompaniment under the main melody at the start of the movement. In the re-mastered version you can make out the harmonies more clearly. In general there’s greater fullness in the bass and much more definition to the sound.

At the start of ‘Scène d’amour’ the choir sounds to be singing behind a gauze curtain in Version I. Now, in Version II, the choir is still hushed, as it should be, but the curtain has been drawn back. At a couple of critical points (around 4:58 and again around 6:41) the strings sounded unpleasantly wiry in Version I. The sound in Version II is much warmer, with a nice feeling of huskiness. Overall it’s a much more pleasing listening experience.

Whatever restoration work has gone on behind the scenes was no doubt painstaking but Mr Caniell’s work has been very worthwhile. The new version of CD 1 represents a significant improvement – the other two discs were deemed satisfactory from the start and have not been altered, as I understand it. I’m advised that the set will be available on the Guild website as a download and anyone downloading this fascinating set will be downloading the enhanced Version II.

John Quinn



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