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
Toscanini conducts Berlioz: an update,
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
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.