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  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    


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Toscanini REHEARSES Verdi’s Aida - Acts 1 and 2
Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)

NBC Symphony Orchestra/Arturo Toscanini
Rec. New York 23 March 1949 – the Aida Overture recorded 30 March 1940
RELIEF CR 1896 [2 CDs: 141.27]

Rehearsal sequences are a minority interest but they do afford, or can afford, a degree of specificity into a musician’s working practices. Familiarity with Beecham’s avuncular mugging or Walter’s quiet insistence will doubtless prepare one for the seismic, volcanic and characteristically Toscaninian bellow – a compound of Caligula and Krakatoa – that erupts every so often. What Relief present here is an orchestral rehearsal for the commercial RCA Victor discs that were recorded a few days later. Toscanini sings along for much of the time, enacting in his coarse croak an impassioned identification with the score. His concentration on diminuendos and scrupulously crisp rhythm is evident. He goes mad when he thinks the rhythm is getting lax, an extrapolation of the musicians’ laziness and inattention to detail enraging him beyond measure. He can also relax a little; some wintry shafts of humour are here as well but the overriding impression is one of businesslike tension.

It would I think be inappropriate to review this as if it were a finished performance, even more since this is an orchestral rehearsal. However some points did strike me forcefully when listening. The brisk repetitions of certain key sections in the opening scenes of Act I allow one to appreciate the sympathetic moulding of cello phrases (Toscanini was a cellist of course). His bravo to the section is a professional mark of respect. In the passages following Quale insolita gioia we encounter a terrifying ordeal as, after some sectional balances, Toscanini throws a couple of fits. I’ve heard rehearsal sequences before when he turns on the basses as he does here: Articulate contrabassi he barks out in a daemonic shout. And yet a few minutes later he induces some laughter in the orchestra ‘Ave you ‘ad your lunch? Aaahh that followed specificities concerning staccato articulation and a mistake in the score. Toscanini generally talks in Italian, sometimes employing a polyglot vocabulary: once or twice exclusively in English.

It’s extremely compelling to hear him insist on the correct placement of the piano in a phrase and the very intense but utterly single-minded way he can stride through a long passage without stopping to fuss over detail. But just as things seem to be simmering down, after what was apparently a longish rehearsal, Toscanini does what Beecham told Klemperer he was about to do to a New York orchestra – I’m going to bring some electricity into this lazy body. The resultant abuse Stupido! Stupido! – Look at your music would be enough to chasten even the toughest Bronx heart. I don’t want to give the impression that this is the Jaws of orchestral rehearsals because it’s only occasionally that Toscanini wells up but when he does it’s generally for specific reasons. In Act II Scene II we witness a fine exhibition of book slamming, foot stomping and splenetic bilingual fury. His immortal comment I ‘ate thissa mistake is a particularly fine form of understatement given the eruption just visited on the orchestra but, as ever, ten minutes later sees him fulsomely congratulating them. One of those specificities that generated his localised but volcanic temper was rhythmic laxity and inexactitude. From rehearsal letter E, più mosso, his choleric stamping niente frightens any passing horses but certainly has a beneficial effect on the rhythmic profile of the playing which instantly tightens in incision – as well it might.

Not a CD for the generalist but a fascinating document nevertheless; I think most or part has been available before on LP, RCA and Franklin Mint. As for the so-called Aida Overture, included as a quasi-appendix that was a premiere recording and has seen the light of day on a number of LPs and CD reissues.

Jonathan Woolf



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