Toscanini will always be a controversial figure. Detractors will
dwell on what they perceive as his less attractive qualities –
a certain relentlessness, literalness, fierceness, inability to
relax, lack of tenderness, impatience bordering on brusqueness.
Yet his champions would argue that at his best – say in Italian
opera - he was peerless. Part of the trouble is that once one
has heard his gripping, no-nonsense interpretations, many other
perfectly decent performances sound insipid, lacklustre or indulgent.
Does he drive the music? Is he sometimes overbearing? Of course,
but one has to get beyond these obvious characteristics. There
is a parallel with Heifetz, another musician some listeners find
cold and impatient, while others relish the very same freedom
recording of Otello represents Toscanini in his element,
keeping a tight rein on the drama throughout. Some listeners
will miss that extra degree of repose in more inward numbers
such as The Willow Song. Nevertheless, one could hardly
describe Toscanini as perfunctory here. Neither does he linger
in the Love Duet, but I honestly do not feel any loss
of expressiveness, and I would say the same about all the
most affecting points in the score. As for the obviously thrilling
numbers, Toscanini generates his usual fierce, gripping intensity.
From his first
“Esultate!”, Vinay raises high expectations which are magnificently
fulfilled. For me, no singer has been as electrifying and
heroic as Vickers in this role (under Serafin), but Vinay
is undoubtedly among the finest alternatives.
The Iago of Valdengo
(who died in 2007 in his nineties) is not the most malevolent
– no Gobbi for instance – but nevertheless very fine. Nelli’s
is not the richest of voices as Desdemona, but she is very
reliable - accurate, meaningful and musical. Only the ascending
triplet figure in The Willow Song - slightly hurried,
Toscanini being faster than Verdi’s metronome mark - is not
always purely in tune. The A flat at the end of the Ave
Maria is also a little high, but these are tiny blemishes.
In general one rarely hears the three major roles as well
sung and satisfyingly interpreted. This set will not only
stand repeated listening, but also increasingly reveal its
As for the recorded
sound, it has to be heard to be believed. In the producer’s
note the estimable Ward Marston states: “the sound on these
discs [the original 16 inch lacquer-coated aluminium] is astonishing
and, for the most part, they are astonishingly quiet”. The
estimable Marston has “made no attempt to ‘enhance’ the sound
of these broadcasts”, adding no artificial reverberation and
making only three small patches using rehearsal material.
The radio announcements, synopses and applause are all included.
For me, this 1947
performance is among the essential recordings of this magnificent
work. Even those with an aversion to Toscanini may be grudgingly
impressed, and I would guess that those who can see both sides
of the argument will be thoroughly convinced by this Otello.