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Giuseppe VERDI (1813–1901)
The Verdi Recordings (Arturo Toscanini)
La Traviata
Licia Albanese (soprano) – Violetta; Jan Peerce (tenor) – Alfredo; Robert Merrill (baritone) – Germont; Maxine Stellman (mezzo) – Flora; John Garris (tenor) – Gastone; Johanne Moreland (soprano) – Annina; George Cehanovsky (baritone) – Douphol; Paul Dennis (bass) – Marquis d’Obigny; Arthur Newman (bass) – Dr Grenvil; NBC Symphony Chorus. Recorded 1 and 8 December 1946
I Lombardi: Act III Trio
Vivian Della Chiesa (soprano); Jan Peerce (tenor); Nicola Moscona (bass); Mischa Mischakoff (violin)
Recorded 31 January 1943
Rigoletto: Act IV
Zinka Milanov (soprano) – Gilda; Nan Merriman (mezzo) – Maddalena; Jan Peerce (tenor) – The Duke of Mantua; Leonard Warren (baritone) – Rigoletto; Nicola Moscona (bass) – Sparafucile; All City High School Chorus and Glee Clubs
Recorded at Madison Square Garden, New York City on 25 May 1944
Nabucco: Va, pensiero, sull’ali dorate
Westminster Choir
Recorded 31 January 1943
Un ballo in maschera
Jan Peerce (tenor) – Riccardo; Herva Nelli (soprano) – Amelia; Robert Merrill (baritone) – Renato; Claramae Turner (mezzo) – Ulrica; Nicola Moscona (bass) – Samuel; Virginia Haskins (soprano) – Oscar; George Cehanocsky (baritone) – Silvano; Norman Scott (bass) – Tom; Robert Shaw Chorale
Recorded at Carnegie Hall, New York City on 17 and 24 January 1954
Luisa Miller: Overture; Act II, Scene 3: Oh! Fede negar potessi … Quando le sere al placido
Jan Peerce (tenor)
Recorded 25 July 1943
I vespri siciliani: Overture
Recorded 24 January 1942
La forza del destino: Overture
Recorded at Carnegie Hall 10 November 1952
Aida
Herva Nelli (soprano) – Aida; Eva Gustavson (mezzo) – Amneris; Richard Tucker (tenor) – Radames; Giuseppe Valdengo (baritone) – Amonasro; Norman Scott (bass) – Ramfis; Dennis Harbour (bass) – King of Egypt; Teresa Stich-Randall (soprano) – Priestess;
Robert Shaw Chorale
Recorded on 26 March and 2 April 1949
Imno delle nazioni
Jan Peerce (tenor), Westminster Choir
Recorded 8 and 20 December 1943
Otello
Ramon Vinay (tenor) – Otello; Herva Nelli (soprano) – Desdemona; Giuseppe Valdengo (baritone) – Jago; Virginio Assandri (tenor) – Cassio; Leslie Chabay (tenor) – Roderigo; Nicola Moscona (bass) – Lodovico; Arthur Newman (bass) – Montano; Nan Merriman (mezzo) – Emilia; NBC Symphony Chorus; Boys Chorus
Recorded on 6 and 13 December and at rehearsals on 4, 5 and 12 December 1947
Falstaff
Giuseppe Valdengo (baritone) – Falstaff; Herva Nelli (soprano) – Mistress Ford; Nan Merriman (mezzo) – Mistress Meg Page; Cloe Elmo (mezzo) – Mistress Quickly; Frank Guarrera (baritone) – Ford; Teresa Stich-Randall (soprano) – Nannetta; Antonio Madasi (tenor) – Fenton; Gabor Carelli (tenor) – Dr. Caius; John Carmen Rossi (tenor) – Bardolph; Norman Scott (bass) – Pistol; Robert Shaw Chorale
Recorded on 1 and 8 April 1950
Te Deum (No. 4 Quattro pezzi sacri)
Messa da Requiem
Herva Nelli (soprano); Fedora Barbieri (mezzo); Giuseppe Di Stefano (tenor); Cesare Siepi (bass); Robert Shaw Chorale
Recorded at Carnegie Hall on 27 January 1951
All tracks: NBC Symphony Orchestra/Arturo Toscanini
Recordings, when not otherwise indicated, at NBC Studio 8-H, New York City
BMG-RCA RED SEAL 82876-67893-2 [12 CDs: 75:48 + 76:32 + 76:03 + 71:37 + 36:59 + 68:25 + 45:45 + 62:24 + 61:59 + 55:00 + 77:42 + 77:36]

To older collectors these recordings are well-known. Many regard them as benchmarks against which all new versions have to be measured. This category of readers need not read any further: if they have worn out their old LPs or see it convenient to have them collected in one 38 mm wide box with each CD in a separate cover, then this is a good buy. At Amazon.com it can be had at £31.99, which is less than £3 per disc. Sound is variable but never less than acceptable and documentation is sparse: track lists for each disc, both on the separate cover and in the booklet, full information on participating musicians and singers - but no cast lists for the operas so the heading for this review will be valuable - details on recording venues and dates and an essay, in three languages, about Toscanini but no notes on the music.

Younger collectors and those just starting a collection should know that Toscanini was probably the greatest conductor of the 20th century, challenged by Furtwängler and few others from his own generation. He was born in 1867, trained as a cellist - he played in the orchestra at the first performance of Verdi’s Otello - but even then he had already started his conducting career. He conducted the premieres of Leoncavallo’s I Pagliacci and Puccini’s La bohème. He became artistic director of La Scala in Milan in 1898, where he raised standards to challenge the world’s great houses. During 1908–1915 he worked at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, conducting the world premiere of Puccini’s La fanciulla del West in 1910 with Enrico Caruso as Dick Johnson. He then returned to Europe, but in 1938, when the political climate was becoming rough, he returned to the US, at the age of 70, where the National Broadcasting Corporation, NBC, founded a hand-picked symphony orchestra for him to perform symphonic music and operas for radio and the gramophone. It is from this rich legacy that the present recordings emanate. He may have had some equals in symphonic repertoire but as a Verdi conductor he was supreme, having met the composer on many occasions and discussed the works with him. He was legendary for his ambition to perform the music according to the composers’ wishes with accurate tempos, observance of dynamics and his high demands for precision. To reach these goals he was a rehearsal freak and his temperamental outbreaks were well-known and feared.
 
Collected in this box are all his official Verdi recordings from the NBC years. There are others; at least three more versions of the Requiem, but as far as I can recall this is what was released on LPs has been available from time to time since the 1950s.
 
Starting with the sonics, these recordings have always been notorious due to the acoustics. Most were set down in Studio 8-H at the NBC, a venue that was acoustically practically dead. Probably Toscanini wanted it that way since there was no reverberation to mask details in the orchestral fabric; transparency and clarity were always his main concern. The result was – and is – an analytical sound with none of the roundness and warmth that can be achieved in a good concert hall. More often than not one soon adjusts to these limitations and concentrates on the music. There were of course technical advances made during the 12 years that these recordings span. The sound quality varies a bit but on the whole, provided one can tolerate mono sound and a narrower frequency range than on later recordings, this is more than acceptable. There is enough punch in the climaxes of, say, Otello and Falstaff, to make them engrossing musical experiences.
 
The orchestra was well-drilled and the playing is a wonder of precision. As I already mentioned there can be a certain lack of warmth, which affect the strings, first and foremost. The two Traviata preludes are good evidence: the violins at the beginning are thin and wiry but when the cellos sing the beautiful Violetta theme they are sonorous and heart-warming. One only wishes that there had been at least some aura around the violins. The music recorded at Carnegie Hall and, in one case, Madison Square Garden, has the same deficits but the gain is the clarity: you hear every strand in the orchestral writing, or rather the strands that Toscanini – and presumably Verdi – regarded as all-important. Time and again one sits up and hears voices that have slipped by unnoticed in other recordings. The choral forces are also first class, but here again they lack warmth. With Robert Shaw and his Chorale participating we can rest assured that we are on a high level of execution.
 
Toscanini’s choice of tempi has in some camps resulted in accusations of being too rigid, too relentless, pushing the music at break-neck tempos. Well, he can be fast, even very fast, but no one can accuse him of rigidity. Even if he presses on he can be very flexible and at important moments he allows his singers to caress a phrase and linger a little extra – as long as that is what Verdi prescribes. He is far from the metronomic mechanic he has sometimes been called. He doesn’t avoid sentiment, but he avoids sentimentality. Sometimes I feel he is too hectic: much of La traviata is extremely fast, the guests at Violetta’s party in the first act sound like a bunch of up-stressed maniacs – probably they were. The fast tempo and the heavily stressed rhythms give, though, a slightly parodic effect, too much of the rum-ti-dum of Verdi’s galley years. The big second act scene with Violetta and Germont is also very fast, but it never sounds breathless. I believe it is Toscanini’s care about clarity and transparency that works wonders. Timings can often be revealing when it comes to comparing recordings, but they do not always tell the whole truth. And Toscanini is not constantly fast. In Un ballo in maschera the second act duet Teco io sto is almost two minutes shorter than on Leinsdorf’s recording from the late 1960s – and that is a big difference. On the other hand Renato’s famous aria in act III, Eri tu, on both recordings sung by Robert Merrill, is considerably slower with Toscanini than with Leinsdorf.
 
This review already seems overlong and I am not going to give detailed analyses of the different works. Let me just point out that Toscanini’s insight in each work is indeed illuminating and anyone investing in this box will have a treasure trove to dig into for years to come. Irrespective of which and how many other recordings you already have, comparisons will always put them into a new perspective. Maybe no single recording of an operatic masterpiece will ever be regarded as definitive, but Toscanini’s Verdi operas will forever be as close to the mark as can be imagined. Strong words, but I believe them to be true.
 
“But what about the singers?” I can hear some well-informed reader asking. The myth says that Toscanini chose his singers among those who were willing to obey him and forgo their own wish to show off. Consequently he picked among the second bests. Of course there is no Tebaldi and Stignani and Björling - but he was scheduled for Un ballo in maschera and withdrew on short notice - no Gobbi and no Christoff. But look at this list:
 
Sopranos: Licia Albanese and Zinka Milanov were two of the greatest established singers. Herva Nelli - a favourite with Toscanini - was one of the most important Verdi sopranos as can be heard here in practically every role with her Desdemona and Alice Ford maybe a notch above the others. We also have the young Teresa Stich-Randall as Nannetta and she is lovely.
 
Mezzos: Nan Merriman here sings only minor parts but was to become one of the leading mezzos of the 1950s and 1960s. Fedora Barbieri was one of the last in the royal line of Italian mezzos (Stignani, Simionato, Barbieri, Cossotto). Cloe Elmo had a great career and a fruity voice, more contralto perhaps, although her Quickly is a bit blustery.
 
Tenors: Jan Peerce - another favourite of Toscanini’s - was one of the best lirico-spinto singers at the Met for many years and he is an asset here. Ramon Vinay was one of the best Otellos ever; on a par, I would say, with Martinelli in the 1930s and more expressive than Mario Del Monaco in the 1950s. Giuseppe Di Stefano may over-sing in the Requiem but he is exemplary in the Ingemisco. Richard Tucker, although still quite lyrical, is a superb Radames.
 
Baritones: The two best American baritones, Leonard Warren and Robert Merrill, are heard here in signature roles, surpassing most of their contemporary competition. Giuseppe Valdengo was frankly the best Italian baritone of the era, with an expressiveness and flexibility of utterance that was a challenge even to Tito Gobbi and a with a greater voice per se than Gobbi’s. His Amonasro is a really chilling presence in the third act scene with Aida. His Iago is just as formidable as that of Gobbi or Leferkus and, in a quite different role, he is an ideal Falstaff.
 
Basses: Nicola Moscona was a good comprimario, appearing here in a variety of roles, but Cesare Siepi, just a few months after his Met debut, sings the important bass solos in the Requiem with such authority and such steady voice that most other basses are over-shadowed.
 
As can be seen from the heading there are several bits and pieces thrown in besides the five operas and the Requiem which makes this an even more tempting bargain. Many of these works can be had separately. Those who are reluctant to invest in the whole set should at least get Otello and Falstaff but at the ridiculously low price this box should be an obligatory buy for every opera lover!
 
Göran Forsling
 

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