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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Otello (1887)
Ramon Vinay (tenor) - Otello; Giuseppe Valdengo (baritone) - Iago; Herva Nelli (soprano) - Desdemona; Virginio Assandri (tenor) - Cassio; Nan Merriman (mezzo) - Emilia; Leslie Chabay (tenor) - Roderigo
NBC Symphony Orchestra and Choruses/Arturo Toscanini
rec. broadcasts, Acts 1 and 2: 6 December 1947; Acts 3 and 4: 13 December 1947
NAXOS HISTORICAL 8.111320-21 [75:17  + 75:04]
Experience Classicsonline

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 from indulgence.

This celebrated 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 classic qualities.

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

Philip Borg-Wheeler




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