Giacomo PUCCINI (1858-1924) La Bohème (1896)
Jan Peerce (tenor) – Rodolfo; Licia Albanese (soprano) – Mimi; Francesco Valentino (baritone) – Marcello; Nicola Moscona (bass) – Colline; Anne McKnight (soprano) – Musetta; George Cehanovsky (baritone) – Schaunard; Salvatore Baccaloni (bass) – Benoit/Alcindore
NBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus/Arturo Toscanini
rec. NBC Studio 8H, New York, 3 and 10 February 1946
Programme notes available online PRISTINE AUDIO PACO110 [2 CDs: 101:34]
Arturo Toscanini conducted the premieres of four Puccini operas: Manon Lescaut, La Bohème, La fanciulla del West and Turandot, two years after the composer’s death. Still Puccini thought that Toscanini was hostile to him and didn’t like his music. There may lie some truth in this since Toscanini recorded very little Puccini. The photo of the two on the cover of this issue seems to confirm that animosity. They were obviously not on speaking terms. This Bohème was set down in the studio during two broadcast evenings in February 1946, to celebrate that fifty years had passed since the premiere. It would be tempting to say that this should be the authentic Bohème for the reason that Toscanini should know better than anyone else how Puccini wanted the opera to be performed, but there are several factors that tell against this. First of all the recording was made fifty years after the premiere and after such a long period of time a conductor’s view is apt to change. We know that Toscanini’s late recordings are often considerably faster than comparable versions from a couple of decades earlier – I am talking of recordings from the late 1920s. Even by then the maestro was a relatively elderly man, whose youth was another thirty years back. If Puccini was right in his feeling that Toscanini disliked him it is quite possible that the conductor deliberately worked against Puccini’s will. Moreover Sir Thomas Beecham, who recorded the opera ten years after Toscanini in that legendary version with Victoria de los Angeles and Jussi Björling, stated that he had discussed Bohème with Puccini and knew exactly how the composer wanted it. Beecham and Toscanini are at the opposite poles in several respects. Toscanini’s recording is, as far as I have been able to find out, the fastest recording ever and also, in great portions of the opera, the most inflexible with metronomic adherence to a strict pulse. Beecham’s is, in close company with Serafin’s, the slowest and also very free with changes of tempo in almost every bar. Beecham is the romantic who revels in the last drop of sentimentality, whereas Toscanini creates a chilly, unromantic atmosphere, further intensified by the dry acoustics. It goes without saying that the precision is immaculate and that is pure gain in the complicated second act. Whether it is historically authentic or not, the recording should be heard for the sake of this. Then, Toscanini is no machine and in central moments he can be just as flexible as any other conductor, savouring a phrase, making a ritardando, accentuating some instrumental detail - in short sculpting the music memorably. I do believe that he loved this score, at least some of the key scenes. Just listen to Che gelida manina, where towards the end of the aria Toscanini joins in with Jan Peerce and sings second tenor – and not always in tune. In Mimi’s aria, which follows, the maestro is at his most relaxed and gives Licia Albanese ample space to mould the phrases. However, when her big melody comes Toscanini is so engrossed in the music that he almost drowns poor Mimi with his singing. There are other key moments where he gives his singers free rein, as for example in Musetta’s waltz aria in act 2. Elsewhere, as I have already intimated, his conducting is hard-driven and by and large lacking in charm.
When it comes to the singing misgivings also arise. Jan Peerce, who was one of Toscanini’s favourite tenors, is a reliable singer. As always he phrases sensitively but his voice lacks the melting tone and brilliance of Björling or Bergonzi or the honeyed delivery of Tagliavini on the Santini set. He is quite good however in the encounter with Mimi in the first act where he sings with a great deal of feeling. Licia Albanese unfortunately sounds more like a soubrette with thin tone. She is a far cry from the lovely Victoria de los Angeles and the creamy but slightly matronly Renata Tebaldi. Her girlish timbre is still quite affecting in Mi chiamano Mimi and she sings with considerable warmth in Sono andati in the last act. Anne McKnight as Musetta is another razor-sharp soubrette and not too easy to tell apart from Mimi, but she has all the notes and the technique for her second act aria. The other bohemians are rather anonymous with a sometimes sorely strained Marcello. Only Nicola Moscona stands out with a warm 'coat aria' in the last act. The most memorable impersonation is Salvatore Baccaloni’s vivid Benoit, a larger-than-life caricature in the Fernando Corena mould.
The text in the above two paragraphs is almost word by word what I wrote eight years ago when reviewing an issue of this recording on Istituto Discografico Italiano IDIS 6530/31. I listened to parts of it again before delving into the Pristine version and was quite surprised that the sound was so good. In my memory it was quite atrocious, but I soon found out that I was thinking of the filler: the third act of Manon Lescaut recorded live at La Scala in Milano in May the same year. I was surprised at the amount of orchestral detail that could be heard. Putting on this new re-mastering by Andrew Rose I thought that much more could hardly be expected. In fact, I could not hear much difference in that respect. Neither had I been aware of the wow that Rose mentions in his notes to this issue which he has corrected. What is obvious however is the improved acoustics. Toscanini’s recordings from the 1940s and 1950s are notorious for the dead acoustic –though probably preferred by the conductor who always strived for clarity of detail. Here Andrew Rose has added some reverberation, which gives the feeling of a relatively spacious hall and also makes the voices seem more rounded and warmer; so much so that I have to modify some of my comments in relation to the singing. Primarily it is the ladies that fare better in the Pristine version. Ann McKnight’s Musetta is still very bright of tone and Licia Albanese sounds quite affecting with that extra aura around her voice. Jan Peerce is still less than melting but at least less wooden while no reverberation in the world can mask the strain in Francesco Valentino’s rather four-square delivery. In “manipulating” the acoustics Rose has also lifted the level of the bass frequencies. This occasionally makes the orchestral sound rather boomy but I can live with that.
To enhance the feeling of listening to an historical broadcast Andrew Rose has restored Ben Grauer’s announcements and also reinstated the applause from the original tapes but never heard on previous RCA releases. There is no doubt that this contributes to the atmosphere.
I thought that I could just scrap the Italian issue when I got this new one but both will actually do side by side. A last glance at the cover photo made me wonder: a) What would Puccini have said about this reading of his beloved opera? b) What would Toscanini have said about Andrew Rose’s restoration?