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Vincenzo BELLINI (1801 - 1835) Introduction and Druids’ Chorus (Norma)
Giuseppe VERDI (1813 - 1901) Te Deum
Arrigo BOITO (1842 - 1918) Prologue (Mefistofele)
Nicola Moscona (bass)
Boys’ Chorus, Mixed Chorus
NBC Symphony Orchestra/Arturo Toscanini
Recorded Studio 8-H, 2 December 1945. ADD
GUILD GHCD 2263 [50.32]

 

Toscanini is not immediately associated with the performance of large-scale choral music, except perhaps for Verdi’s Requiem. So it can come as something of a surprise that he conducted the first Italian performance of Verdi’s ‘Te Deum’, the longest and most successful of the four late sacred pieces. This disc is the record of a concert that Toscanini gave with the NBC Symphony Orchestra in 1945. All three works involve a substantial choral part, though of course the Bellini and Boito items are operatic in origin.

In his excellent accompanying essay William Youngren refers to Toscanini’s Bellini performance in the following terms: ‘excitingly different from others is his complete avoidance of the "delicate" and lyrical style most conductors routinely apply to Bellini’

Whilst this is true, as far as it goes, I found the resulting performance had a welcome muscularity during the instrumental introduction, but that the vocal/choral passages had an emphasis of articulation and lack of singing line which was reminiscent of performances of early Verdi rather than Bellini. It does not help that the bass soloist, Nicola Moscona, uses his impressive voice in a rather emphatic manner lacking in a feeling for lyrical line.

Moving on to the Verdi, the issue of the qualities of performance by the chorus comes more into play. What constitutes the ideal choral performance style is something that changes over time. This is emphasised by listening to the amazing vowel sounds from the pre-war BBC choirs or the startling sound quality of the French choir who gave the premiere of Poulenc’s Mass and received numerous plaudits from him. So my comments on the unnamed chorus might be thought of as a little unfair. But I did find that their vocal qualities detracted from the performance; there was too much vibrato and far too little sense of line. The chorus are impressive and thrilling in the louder, more emphatic passages, but in the quieter sections the sense of line and intensity is lost, thus compromising the music. This is a shame as Toscanini conducts a performance which is in many ways admirably subtle and not a little restrained, despite the inevitable bellicose moments.

The final item on the CD, the prologue from Boito’s ‘Mefistofele’ receives a vigorous performance. Curiously, though a weaker work, it seems to receive a rather stronger, more vital performance, particularly where the chorus is concerned. Moscona is an excellent soloist in this work, more suited to his role than in the Bellini. Though, in many ways, it is an unsatisfactory opera ‘Mefistofele’ does have some remarkable imaginative touches. The prologue is a tremendous work and here Toscanini coordinates its many disparate elements into a powerful whole.

This disc is an important historical document and though not of impeccable quality (the disc is a conflation of three different sources), the engineer Richard Caniell’s work has ensured that the resulting disc is perfectly acceptable. One curiosity, which emphasises the disc’s historical status, is the preservation of the broadcast commentary, a delightful period detail. As a historical document of one of the 20th century’s greatest conductors we should accept these performances gratefully and not worry too much about how they compare to our ideal.

Robert Hugill

see also review by Robert Farr

 



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