Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Falstaff (1893) [122:25]
Mariano Stabile - Falstaff (baritone); Pietro Biasini - Ford (baritone); Dino Borgioli - Fenton (tenor); Alfredo Tedeschi - Dr. Cajus (tenor); Giuseppe Nessi - Bardolph (tenor);
Virgilio Lazzari - Pistol (bass); Franca Somigli - Mrs. Ford (soprano); Augusta Oltrabella - Nanette (soprano); Mita Vasari - Mistress Page (mezzo); Angelica Cravcenco - Mistress Quickly (mezzo); Vienna State Opera Ballet and Chorus; Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Arturo Toscanini
rec. 9 August 1937, Salzburg Festival, Austria. ADD
PRISTINE AUDIO PACO035 [56:15 + 60:06]

This Falstaff is not the Toscanini recording described by Gramophone as 'one of the greatest of all operatic sets, and one of Toscanini's most perfect operatic recordings'. It's a re-engineering of the full live performance staged in August 1937 at the Salzburg Festival. That Falstaff was actually the second of three remarkable performances by Toscanini at the height of his powers … relaxed, detached yet in full control and able to extract the very essence of Verdi's operatic and dramatic intentions. This was the same year in which the conductor had successes at Salzburg with Fidelio, Zauberflöte and Meistersinger.

This Falstaff has been transferred by Andrew Rose - not from the collection of selenophone film at the New York Public Library - which was used for another recent CD - but from a series of six LPs containing a 'private recording'. The same performance (presumably from another source) was also previously issued on Andante (AN3080) with a recording - for comparison - of the same opera by Karajan from 20 years later with the same orchestra but, frankly, a weaker cast of soloists.

These CDs from French Pristine Audio come minimally packaged: the two in a single jewel case with next to no liner-notes. The recording is also available from the Pristine website as a zipped MP3 download. Given the age and roughness of the mono source, the sound quality - although by no means high fidelity - is more than adequate for you to enjoy Verdi's last opera.

Almost the first thing you'll notice is that this is a stage recording. You're well aware not just the 'noises off' (applause, coughing) but also of the movement, 'business' and dialogue. In the end these actually add to the experience. The action of Falstaff is concentrated and inward-looking: these performers convey a sense of great immediacy. Just what the work needs. This includes the orchestra, which is closely recorded. To bring the comedy to life and make the deceptions, characterisation and shifts in the players' fortunes as vivid as possible there needs to be a sense of space. Space in which to mirror the body language, for example, and illuminate the way the personalities interact and react to the twists in their (mis)fortunes.

After all, Verdi described Falstaff as a commedia lirica, Toscanini's is more of a dramatic conception. Comedy is not missing: the delivery of the principals (Stabile, Biasini, Borgioli and Somigli, in particular) is forward, pressing and zesty. This is particularly true, for example, towards the end of Act II [CD.2 trs.1-3]: there is an almost tangible energy in the coming and going, the bustle, and in the ways in which the mischief is ever more deeply confounded. But - as later, more detached, scenes show - there was never rush or busyness for their own sake in this performance.

With the exception, really, of the Fenton-Nannetta interest, the plot of Falstaff is simple and linear. Toscanini elicits from his players and singers an equally closely and clearly driven account of the events of a few intense days in such a way that their characters (foibles, weaknesses, constancy, self-deception) are transparent - yet still… entertaining! Each action, dialogue, solo and exchange somehow contributes to a greater sense of their selves.

As is often the case with Toscanini, it's the ensemble work (so important in Falstaff) that strikes one. Not just a singleness of purpose or sense of team-work; but also that the soloists derive the life and interpretative impetus from a source - Shakespeare, when all said and done - in which they all obviously believe.

This is unlikely to be most people's first choice as a Falstaff. Yet it's much more than a historical document. It has persuasive performances … Stabile's Falstaff, Borgioli's Fenton and Biasini's Ford in particular. Their interpretations suggested (let's not say 'dictated') the approach for a generation or two. The boxy sound and lack of libretto or background material are minor drawbacks.

If you appreciate the huge contribution which Toscanini made to music-making in the first half of the last century; if you want a valid and special Falstaff; if you want to get to know the opera anew or see it in a new light after such performances as those by Abbado with the Berlin Philharmonic on DG (471194) or Solti with the RCA Italian Opera Chorus and Orchestra on Decca (425002), this effective reissue is worth a look.

Mark Sealey