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Giacomo PUCCINI (1858–1924)
Toscanini: Complete Puccini Recordings
La Bohème (1896)
Jan Peerce (tenor) – Rodolfo; Licia Albanese (soprano) – Mimi; Francesco Valentino (baritone) – Marcello; Nicola Moscona (bass) – Colline; Anne Mc Knight (soprano) – Musetta; George Cehanovsky (baritone) – Schaunard; Salvatore Baccaloni (bass) – Benoit/Alcindore); NBC Symphony Orchestra & Chorus/Arturo Toscanini
Manon Lescaut (1893)
Intermezzo & Act 3: Mafalda Favero (soprano) – Manon Lescaut; Giovanni Malipiero (tenor) – Des Grieux; Mariano Stabile (baritone) – Lescaut; Giuseppe Nessi (tenor) – Un lampionaio; Carlo Forti (bass) – Sergente; Orchestra e Coro del Teatro alla Scala di Milano/Arturo Toscanini; Intermezzo. NBC Symphony Orchestra/Arturo Toscanini
rec. studio recording in New York, 3, 10 February, 1946 (Bohème); live recording, Milan, 11 May, 1946 (Manon Lescaut: Intermezzo & act 3); studio recording, New York, 10 December, 1949 (Manon Lescaut: Intermezzo)
Experience Classicsonline

Arturo Toscanini conducted the premieres of four Puccini operas: Manon Lescaut, La Bohème, La fanciulla del West and Turandot, two years after the composer’s death. Still Puccini thought that Toscanini was hostile to him and didn’t like his music. There may lie some truth in this since Toscanini recorded very little Puccini. What is included in this set is his complete Puccini recordings. Of course it is valuable to have these, even though the live recording of act 3 from Manon Lescaut, from the re-opening of La Scala, is in dreadfully bad sound.

The complete Bohème is quite another matter, set down in the studio during two broadcast evenings in February 1946. It would be tempting to say that this should be the authentic Bohème for the reason that Toscanini should know better than anyone else how Puccini wanted the opera to be performed, but there are several factors that tell against this. First of all the recording was made fifty years after the premiere and during such a long period of time a conductor’s view is apt to change. We know that Toscanini’s late recordings often are considerably faster than comparable versions from a couple of decades earlier – I am talking of recordings from the late 1920s – and even by then the maestro was a relatively elderly man, whose youth was another 30 years back in time. Puccini was right in his feeling that Toscanini disliked him it is quite possible that the conductor deliberately worked against Puccini’s will.

Moreover Sir Thomas Beecham, who recorded the opera ten years after Toscanini in that legendary version with Victoria de los Angeles and Jussi Björling, stated that he had discussed Bohème with Puccini and knew exactly how the composer wanted it and Beecham and Toscanini are at the opposite poles in several respects. Toscanini’s recording is, as far as I have been able to find out, the fastest recording ever and also, in great portions of the opera, the most inflexible with metronomic adherence to a strict pulse. Beecham’s is, in close company with Serafin’s, the slowest and also very free with sometimes changes of tempo in almost every bar. Beecham is the romantic who revels in the last drop of sentimentality, whereas Toscanini creates as chilly, unromantic atmosphere, further enhanced by the dry acoustics. It goes without saying that the precision is immaculate and that is pure gain in the complicated second act and, whether it is historically authentic or not, the recording should be heard for the sake of this act.

Then of course, Toscanini is no machine and in central moments he can be just as flexible as any other conductor, savouring a phrase, making a ritardando, accentuating some instrumental detail, in short sculpting the music memorably. And I do believe he loves this score, at least some of the key scenes. Just listen to Che gelida manina, where towards the end of the aria Toscanini joins in with Jan Peerce and sings second tenor – and not always in tune. In Mimi’s aria, which follows, the maestro is at his most relaxed and gives Licia Albanese ample space to mould the phrases, but when her big melody comes Toscanini is so engrossed in the music that he almost drowns poor Mimi with his singing. There are other key moments where he gives his singers free reins, as for example Musetta’s waltz aria in act 2. Elsewhere, as I have already intimidated, his conducting is hard-driven and by and large the performance lacks charm.
When it comes to the singing misgivings also have to be made. Jan Peerce, who was one of Toscanini’s favourite tenors, is a reliable singers as always and phrases sensitively but his voice lacks the melting tone and the brilliance of Björling or Bergonzi or the honeyed delivery of Tagliavini on the Santini set. He is quite good however in the encounter with Mimi in the first act where he sings with a great deal of feeling. Licia Albanese unfortunately sounds more like a soubrette with thin tone and is a far cry from the lovely Victoria de los Angeles and the creamy but slightly matronly Renata Tebaldi. Her girlish timbre is still quite affecting in Mi chiamano Mimi and she sings with considerable warmth in Sono andati in the last act. Anne Mc Knight as Musetta is another razor-sharp soubrette and not too easy to tell from Mimi, but she has all the notes and the technique for her second act aria. The other bohemians are rather anonymous with a partly sorely strained Marcello. Only Nicola Moscona stands out with a warm coat aria in the last act. The most memorable impersonation is Salvatore Baccaloni’s vivid Benoit, a larger-than-life caricature in the Fernando Corena mould.
The La Scala recording of Manon Lescaut has a value primarily as a documentation of the event but it gives very little listening pleasure with a lot of background noise, scrawny string tone and occasional drop-outs. Of the distinguished singers Malipiero’s heroic tenor occasionally shines through and Stabile’s expressive acting is also acceptably reproduced a couple of times. The end of the act, where the tenor has his best opportunities, is practically inaudible.
The studio recording of the intermezzo is much better but it doesn’t belong to the best of Toscanini’s recordings sonically speaking. It is however an impassioned and high-voltage reading.
The booklet has an essay by Danilo Prefumo who is also responsible for the digital remastering. On the last page of the booklet there is a photo of Puccini and Toscanini that seems to confirm the supposed animosity between them. They don’t seem to be on speaking terms.
As a historical document it is interesting but hardly a first choice for a library recording of the opera. Santini (Cetra), Beecham (EMI or Naxos), Serafin (Decca) and even Leinsdorf (Sony BMG) are far preferable and the last two are in excellent stereo.
Göran Forsling


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