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Toscanini conducts VERDI
Falstaff - rehearsals (1950)
Alice Ford: Herva Nelli, sop
Nanetta: Teresa Stich-Randall, sop
Mistress Page: Nan Merriman, mezzo
Falstaff: Giuseppe Valdengo, bar
Dame Quickly: Cloe Elmo, mezzo
Ford : Frank Guerrara, bar
Pistol: Norman Scott, bass
NBC Symphony Orchestra/Arturo Toscanini
Originally issued in 1986; newly restored by Graham Newton (2003)
MUSIC & ARTS CD-4248(2) [61:51 + 63:17]
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For those of you who see little point in purchasing two discs of a conductor rehearsing an opera (speaking in Italian), then you need to know that this set includes over half an hour of continuous run-through with the singers.

These rehearsals were recorded in New York in March 1950 prior to two NBC broadcast performances the following month from which an RCA commercial recording was made. Some people think that the rehearsal run-through of two of the scenes is better performed than the subsequent recording. So there’s at least one reason for buying this set.

Received wisdom has Toscanini (1867-1957) as the twentieth century’s greatest conductor. This could be dismissed as public myth following on from the cult that built up around him during his lifetime. Yet he was hugely respected by many of his professional peers. For example, veteran French conductor Pierre Monteux thought him, "the greatest of all".

What these rehearsals display is a combination of professional efficiency and inspiration. Toscanini packed as much as he could into rehearsal time, operating at energy and stamina levels that led him to be frighteningly intolerant of those who were not keeping up. On disc 1 we can hear the maestro driving the orchestra at the beginning of Act II and singing the characters himself, not always in tune but with a dramatic commitment that some of the stars themselves find hard to match when they arrive. On listening to this it is almost impossible to believe that Toscanini was celebrating his eighty-third birthday at the time. Occasionally there is slight confusion which derives from the fact that Toscanini is rehearsing from memory, a habit largely the result of poor eyesight. When he wants to restart at a different point in the score he calls out the words of a singer's text to identify the place whereas what the players need is the number of the rehearsal point printed in the score. They do not have the words!

For those who have never seen an orchestra rehearsed and think that conducting is largely a matter of throwing your arms about during performance then these discs will be confounding. There is an irony here in Toscanini’s case in that, by all accounts, he threw himself around like someone possessed in rehearsal but at performance was physically controlled and economical. The practice betrayed his ambition of arriving at performance with an orchestra so well prepared that it knew exactly what was required in advance. A possible cost though could be that a more fizzing performance might have been left behind at the rehearsal. This could well be the case here. The run-through on disc 2 is of the first two scenes of Act 1 and benefits from that special frisson that Toscanini generated in rehearsal. It also follows, significantly, one of Toscanini’s temper tantrums. These were legend and sometimes resulted in a broken baton. It was during these rehearsals that he famously smashed his watch. The incident I referred to previously here involves Giuseppe Valdengo who plays the lead role. Toscanini accuses him of not being in time with the orchestra and gives him a frightful bollocking. This is accompanied by loud cracking sounds which I assume to be the conductor smashing his baton down on something – hopefully not Valdengo’s head. The singer meekly replies "Si, signore", which drives Toscanini into an even deeper rage, the reason not being clear but might have been because the conductor was not being addressed as "Maestro". It sounds quite shameful behaviour on Toscanini’s part.

Threat of assault would not have been the only thing to intimidate singers on this occasion. Toscanini's credentials as a Verdi conductor were formidable and unsurpassable. He had first conducted Falstaff fifty-five years before - only a year after the 1893 premiere. Seven years before that he was in the pit at La Scala playing the cello at the premier of Otello. In fact he conducted Falstaff more than any other opera and these discs give us a chance to hear a man trying to squeeze the utmost out of players and singers to achieve his vision of an opera that was the nearest thing to his favourite. The respect is not just for the music. He spends a great deal of time ensuring that the words are inflected properly and are heard. Much effort is put into achieving balance, sometimes holding the orchestra down and, when appropriate, seeking to achieve chamber textures. "Everybody play quartet here", he says in English to the strings at one point.

Buying these discs will allow you to own, at bargain price, an important historical document on conducting and to hear one of the greatest conductors lavishing love on an opera once described by him as "the most beautiful of all".

John Leeman

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