Notes and Editorial Reviews
Toscanini's remains one of the half a dozen greatest opera sets ever recorded. Whether it is the clarity of the ensembles, the extraordinary care taken over orchestral detail or the alert control of dynamics, Toscanini is supreme.
The Falstaff remains, as it always has been, one of the half a dozen greatest opera sets ever recorded. The Requiem is certainly among the three or four most satisfying accounts of that work ever put on disc. As each has here been remastered on CD to give clearer, more immediate sound than I have ever heard before from the originals on LP, joy at the reissue is doubled. With the Aida some caveats have to be entered. In spite of the conductor's vital contribution, this set suffers both from an indifferent cast and a less successful recording and, in this case, the transfer to digital sound seems to have added an unwanted edge to voices and instruments. Even so, here is further evidence of Toscanini's complete understanding of a composer with whom he had worked and whom he understood better than any of his successors.
Toscanini's Falstaff is, and will probably remain, unsurpassed. It is a miracle in every respect. How he loved Verdi and how he strained every sinew to fulfil this amazing score's variety in line, feeling and colour. Whether it is the clarity and discipline of the ensembles, the extraordinary care taken over orchestral detail (most arresting in the whole of the final act's first scene) or the alert control of dynamics, Toscanini is supreme, yet nothing is done for effect's sake; everything seems natural, inevitable, unforced, as though the score was being created anew before us with chamber music finesse – and the atmosphere of a live performance, caught at a 1950 broadcast, adds to the feeling of immediacy. Nobody dares, or seems to want to interrupt the magic being laid before them. Toscanini in his old age is matching the subtlety and vitality of the composer's own Indian summer – or one might say spring, so delicate and effervescent does the scoring sound.
The other overriding impression of Toscanini's reading is the perfect relationship of tempos, not always precisely Verdi's, and the way he accommodates his singers, quite putting to flight any idea of him as a strict taskmaster. If, vocally, the main glory is the wonderful sense of ensemble gained through hours of hard rehearsals (now to be heard on non-commercial discs), individual contributions are almost all rewarding. Indeed, Valdengo's Falstaff, under Toscanini's tutelage, has not been surpassed on disc even by Gobbi. Flexibility, charm, exactness, refinement inform his beautifully and wisely sung portrayal (extraordinary for a singer in his mid thirties) – listen to the whole of the monologue at the start of Act 3 and you'll hear what a great singer working with a great conductor can make of a great role – mainly by observing what the composer has written. He is no less pointed and subtle in his encounter with Frank Guarrera's imposing Ford, and Guarrera himself, again with Toscanini's help, reminds us how much the writing in the Jealousy aria relates to Otello's music. Another great joy of the set is the women's ensemble, their contribution the very epitome of smiling chatter. The Alice, Meg and Nannetta (Stich-Randall – none better) all sound, as they were, fresh and youthful, and Cloe Elmo's Quickly is as rich and ripe of voice and diction as any on disc, though a trifle coarse at times. The Fenton is sweet and Italianate in tone, but not as stylish as others. The smaller roles are all very much part of the team. ...I have no space to dwell further on the sheer pleasures to be found in these sets. They are a repository of the very best in Verdi conducting, worthy of study by aspiring (or established) conductors. More important than that, they should be a source of revelation to a new generation of collectors who may have a dim and/or wrongheaded view of what Toscanini was about.
-- Gramophone [5/1990]