It is a never-ending source of wonder to find modern audio technology
giving new life to recordings originally made many decades ago.
The best technicians – usually those with a strong musical background
- can remove not only clicks, crackles and pops but, indeed, the
whole opaque fuzziness that we had always assumed to be inherent
in “primitive” recording processes. And now, thanks to the application
of even more advanced technologies, we can hear sounds that, while
certainly captured at the time of the original recording, have
never since – thanks to relatively poor playback mechanisms –
been suspected to have been there at all.
last year Music & Arts’s re-release of the best known
of Furtwängler’s Bruckner recordings, “digitally remastered
... by Aaron Z. Schnyder, using the revolutionary new harmonic
balancing technique”, offered striking new clarity to those
classic accounts. And now I have in front of me Pristine Audio’s
reissue of Toscanini’s incandescent account of Ballo,
originally recorded over two sessions in January 1954 and
newly remastered in the “XR” process.
technological developments these days are beyond my limited understanding,
but there is a lucid and very helpful – as well as thought-provoking
– explanation of XR on Pristine Audio’s website.
And I can certainly confirm that, on the basis of this release,
the results of applying XR technology can be very striking.
Ballo in Maschera
is my personal favourite of Verdi’s operas and Toscanini’s
account has always been my first choice of recordings. Of
all the 71 volumes in RCA’s collected Arturo Toscanini
Collection, it – volume 59 in case you are wondering –
is probably the one I take most frequently from my shelves.
The star of the whole show is Toscanini himself displaying
unrivalled passion, drive and fervour. “This”, the conductor
observed after making the recording, “was my last opera performance.
I began by hearing a performance of Un Ballo in Maschera
at the age of four (his memory was playing him false:
he had actually been just three years old!) up in the gallery,
and I’ve finished by conducting it at 87”.
sheer urgency with which Toscanini drives the NBC Symphony
Orchestra is tremendous – and must have been tremendously
challenging – but the players respond as if their lives depended
on it - their careers quite possibly did. Thanks to the survival
of a great deal of filmed material, notably the famous pioneering
“TV concerts” of the late 1940s, we are quite familiar with
the conductor’s baton technique and, as one listens to these
discs, it is quite easy in the mind’s eye to see him slashing
away with a degree of energy more appropriate to a man half
his age. XR technology successfully and strikingly uncovers
a great deal of orchestral detail – notably among some especially
plangent woodwinds – that has hitherto remained largely hidden.
has sometimes been suggested that Toscanini preferred working
with less than top rank singers as they were more likely to
be amenable to his strict disciplinary style and less likely
to have minds of their own. There is some evidence to contradict
that idea – notably the fact that, for this very recording,
the stellar Jussi Björling had actually been scheduled to
sing Riccardo (yes, we are in Boston, not Stockholm) and was only prevented
from doing so by last minute indisposition. Nevertheless,
the way in which Toscanini exercised psychological domination
over many singers can easily be seen in the 1949 televised
concert performance of Aida where soprano Herva Nelli
resembles at times nothing so much as a terrified rabbit caught
in the headlights of an approaching sports car - the maestro
eventually made amends to some extent by leaving her his baton
in his will.
the conductor has assembled a strong and dependable vocal
team, many of whom – Nelli, Peerce, Moscona, Scott – he worked
with repeatedly in this final stage of his career. It is,
if you like, a sort of “in-house” company and, as such, the
various voices here are well known, though, with XR’s apparent
ability to draw the ear to sounds that can, no matter how
familiar you are with previous incarnations of this recording,
come as something of a surprise, Nelli’s voice emerges here
as notably stronger in its lower registers. As her noble paramour,
Jan Peerce, never the most subtle of singers, delivers a forthright
account fully in accordance with Toscanini’s high voltage
approach: the Act 2 love duet between Riccardo and Amelia,
Teco io sto, is a real show-stopper and an undoubted
highlight of the whole performance.
late Verdi from Toscanini that is most often singled out for
special praise – and rightly so – is his unrivalled Falstaff
but this new remastering of Ballo - marred only
by disappointingly dreary artwork, inadequate packaging and
the fact that full notes can only be accessed online – may
well help it achieve the equal recognition it deserves as
a definitive account of a wonderful score.