Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Otello [2:16:00]
Otello - Ramon Vinay (tenor); Iago - Giuseppe Valdengo (baritone); Desdemona - Herva Nelli (soprano); Emilia - Nan Merriman (mezzo); Casio - Virginio Assandri (tenor); Roderigo - Leslie Chabay (tenor); Montano - Arthur Newman (bass); Lodovico - Nicola Moscona - (bass)
Mixed Chorus; NBC Symphony Orchestra/Arturo Toscanini
rec. live broadcast, Studio 8-H Radio City, New York. with audience. Acts I and II on 6 December 1947. Acts III and IV on 13 December 1947.
XR Remastering from various sources by Andrew Rose at Pristine Audio, August 2009
PRISTINE AUDIO PACO033 [69:21 + 66:31]

This was one - or, more accurately, two - of the all-time classic nights in American opera. Toscanini famously played the cello in the La Scala orchestra at the world premiere of Otello and his authority in this work has to be acknowledged, even by those who might not prefer his style. The merits of this performance hardly need rehearsing: it has been reviewed many times before on this site. Suffice it to say that Vinay’s Otello remains one of the great interpretations of the role, heroic yet vulnerable, while Nelli’s Desdemona manages to combine beauty, strength and vulnerability in miraculous fashion. I’ve never been as convinced by Valdengo’s Iago, not least for his mistimed entries in Acts 1 and 2 - can you imagine what Toscanini must have said to him at the end - but he certainly has character to spare.

The real interest here is in the remastering. Pristine Audio has been doing fantastic work recently breathing new life into agèd recordings that are well loved. Their website is well worth a look and they also offer downloads of fabulous quality. Andrew Rose has managed to achieve astonishing clarity with this issue. Yes, there are still occasional hisses and crackles, but how could there not be in a recording of this age? He has managed to, as it were, strip away the varnish that has accumulated in other issues and there are plenty of things that are freshly audible here which may well have passed the listener by before, such as the clarity of the big tuttis in the storm scene, or the bubbling woodwinds at the third verse of Iago’s drinking song. Nelli’s top notes are captured without a hint of strain or interference, yet the passage at the beginning of Act 4 flows with openness and not a hint of congestion. Rose has used “a number of sources from various avid Toscanini collectors” - how mysterious! His aim was to find the best recording of each section of the opera and then edit them together to produce the finest possible version of the performance. Without doubt he has succeeded mightily. To my ears at any rate it was impossible to hear the joins and the whole performance flowed beautifully from one moment to the next. He finished his note by saying “I am convinced that this release has succeeded in making great sonic advances over all previous issues, both on LP and CD.” I certainly haven’t heard any other version to make me disagree. As a fun little extra we’re also given the original radio commentary and audience applause.

This is a performance which every lover of the opera has to have. Love him or hate him, Toscanini has an unending ability to surprise: listen to the way he broadens out the tempo for the climax of the storm yet speeds up for the conclusion of the love duet, and the way he plays around with the textures of the Willow Song is quite remarkable. Extraordinary, maybe: perverse, arguably: but effective? Certainly. This, to my mind, is the clearest version of this performance that you’re likely to find, so if you’re choosing between versions then you can pick this one with confidence.

Simon Thompson