Arturo Toscanini;  NBC S.O.;  Gertrude Ribla, Nan Merriman, Jan Peerce, Francesco Valentino - Verdi & Sibelius (2-Immortal Performances IPCD 1141)
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Arturo Toscanini;  NBC S.O.;  Gertrude Ribla, Nan Merriman, Jan Peerce, Francesco Valentino - Verdi & Sibelius (2-Immortal Performances IPCD 1141)
C1937. ARTURO TOSCANINI Cond. NBC S.O: All Verdi Concert, 25 July, 1943, w.Gertrude Ribla, Nan Merriman, Jan Peerce & Francesco Valentino, with Commentary by Ben Grauer: RIGOLETTO - Act III; GERTRUDE RIBLA: Forza – Pace, pace, mio Dio!; NAN MERRIMAN: Don Carlos – O don fatale; JAN PEERCE: Luisa Miller – Quando le sere al placido; FRANCESCO VALENTINO: Ballo – Eri tu? - incl. Announcement of Mussolini's downfall; ARTURO TOSCANINI Cond. NBC S.O: The Star Spangled Banner (Key), Garibaldi Hymn & Commentary, 9 Sept., 1943. All Sibelius Complete NBC Concert, 18 Feb., 1939, The Swan of Tuonela; En Saga; Finlandia; Symphony #2 in D. (Canada) 2-Immortal Performances IPCD 1141. Notes by Robert Matthew-Walker. Transfers by Richard Caniell. – 787790581185


“Immortal Performances has paired the brilliant Toscanini-NBC SO all-Verdi (July 25, 1943) and all-Sibelius (February 18, 1939) broadcast concerts as a two-disc set. It’s worth noting that for Toscanini, both Verdi and Sibelius were contemporary composers. Sibelius’ life span (1865-1957) parallels Toscanini’s (1867-1957). Verdi (1813-1901) was of course Toscanini’s senior. But Toscanini made his professional conducting debut in 1886 at the age of 19, as a last-minute replacement in AIDA, and he played in the cello section of the La Scala Orchestra in the 1887 world premiere of OTELLO. Toscanini also had the opportunity to meet with Verdi and discuss the interpretation of the composer’s masterpieces. And it was Toscanini who led the musical portion of the service commemorating the first anniversary of Verdi’s passing. Throughout his life, Toscanini was a powerful advocate and superb interpreter of the works of both Verdi and Sibelius. My initial plan was to listen to, and review, each of the featured concerts as separate entities. After all, they took place four years apart, and comprise, respectively, operatic and orchestral repertoire. I’m glad I chose instead to listen first to the pair of concerts. For as it turns out, despite their disparate repertoire, they showcase similar elements of Toscanini’s genius. In both programs, Toscanini proves himself not only a master of incisive and propulsive musical execution, but an interpreter of genius able to get to the heart of the human narrative expressed in both Verdi’s operas, and Sibelius’ orchestral works.

The narrative element is of course more obvious in the Verdi operatic excerpts featured in the 1943 broadcast concert. All reflect intense care and preparation by Toscanini, the vocalists, and the NBC SO. The Overture to LUISA MILLER surges with passion, voiced with rich and glorious singing tone (Toscanini himself can be heard vocalizing throughout both concerts). In the arias from LUISA MILLER, DON CARLO, UN BALLO IN MASCHERA, and LA FORZA DEL DESTINO, Toscanini strikingly juxtaposes the lyrical and dramatic elements. Despite the stereotype of Toscanini’s rushed tempos, there is never a sense of hurry. Quite the contrary, Toscanini gives the vocalists ample space to express the drama at hand. And throughout the singers, under Toscanini’s direction, sing with crystal-clear diction and with subtle, incisive expression. One could argue that a voice like Jan Peerce’s or Nan Merriman’s was a shade too small for their assigned solos. But I doubt anyone will hear the actual performances of the LUISA MILLER and DON CARLO arias, and feel that music has been shortchanged in any fashion. Such is the magic of a collaboration between a conductor of genius and singers eager and willing to embrace his vision.

Following the LUISA MILLER Overture and series of arias, the 1943 broadcast concludes with the complete final act of Verdi’s RIGOLETTO. The obvious comparison is with a performance of the same music the following year at New York’s Madison Square Garden, part of the Complete RCA Toscanini Collection (also available in a superb restoration by Immortal Performances, IPCD 1014 [C1029]). The Maddalena, Duke, and Sparafucile are the same artists as in 1943. But the 1944 performance features two legendary artists; Leonard Warren as Rigoletto, and Zinka Milanov as Gilda. One might assume that the 1944 performance is an obvious first choice. But it’s not quite that straightforward a proposition. The two renditions proceed along similar lines. Familiar (but interpolated) high notes, such as the conclusion of the Duke’s ‘La donna è mobile’ are absent. And again, those who believe Toscanini was a conductor who sprinted along will be surprised by the broad and dark opening orchestral measures, or the way the conductor allows his Rigolettos to savor the acquisition of what they believe to be the body of the murdered Duke (‘Egli è la…Morto!’). It’s also interesting that for both broadcasts, Toscanini chose sopranos with ample, rich voices to sing the role of Gilda. Neither Gertrude Ribla nor Milanov, both lirico-spinto sopranos, possessed the type of vocal equipment to negotiate Gilda’s Act I coloratura passages. But with that music out of the way by the time we reach Act III, Toscanini could feature voices that amplify Gilda’s plight as a seduced and abandoned young woman, willing to sacrifice her life for the licentious Duke. Such voices certainly lend greater impact to the tempestuous concerted scene immediately preceding Gilda’s murder. If Gertrude Ribla did not possess Milanov’s star power, she is nonetheless an affecting Gilda who sings with great feeling and secure vocalism. Francesco Valentino, likewise, is an intense Rigoletto, who combines an attractive lyric baritone with keen and responsive articulation of text and music to fashion a convincing portrait of the tragic court jester. Merriman (Maddalena), Peerce (Duke), and Moscona (Sparafucile) are similarly compelling in both performances. And throughout, we have Toscanini’s masterful direction, ever sensitive to the ebb and flow of Verdi’s music, and (at the risk of repeating myself) never hurrying matters.

Portions of broadcast announcer Ben Grauer’s contributions are included, as well as a news flash of Benito Mussolini’s resignation. The latter immediately preceded the RIGOLETTO Act III, and no doubt added even more intensity and urgency to the performance (although it is ironic that the opera’s conclusion depicts the triumph of an evil ruler). During this 1943 broadcast, Toscanini often ignored Grauer’s announcements, and plunged into the music while the latter was still speaking. Richard Caniell has applied his magic to remove that spoken word/music dissonance. As an appendix to this disc, IP includes excerpts from a September 9, 1943 Toscanini-NBC SO broadcast celebrating Mussolini’s downfall, and performances of the Inno di Garibaldi and Star-Spangled Banner. There are also a couple of brief tracks illustrating Toscanini’s forging ahead with the music during Grauer’s announcements

The February 18, 1939 all-Sibelius concert likewise includes profoundly programmatic elements. It is true that the repertoire comprises orchestral music. But each of the featured works has strong extra-musical associations. The tone poems The Swan of Tuonela, En Saga, and Finlandia all convey a narrative. And even the Symphony #2 has programmatic associations. Sibelius insisted throughout his life that he intended no specific storyline for this work. But that did not stop his Finnish countrymen, suffering under the yolk of Russian oppression, to view the four-movement Symphony #2 as relating the progression from a peaceful existence, to suffering, to preparations for an uprising, to ultimate triumph. Toscanini’s mastery of music of the theater, as illustrated in the all-Verdi concert, serves the works of Sibelius to equally profound effect. Time and again, Toscanini seizes the narrative aspects of the featured works and turns each into a gripping tale. At the outset, it’s interesting to note the contrast in orchestral timbres as evidenced in the two concerts. The richness and warmth of the Verdi concert is replaced by a far more austere and transparent orchestral canvas. To be sure, a great deal of this is due to Sibelius’ orchestral writing. But it is also a testament to Toscanini’s sensitivity to each composer’s aesthetic, and the collaborative exploration by conductor and orchestra in bringing it to life. The Swan of Tuonela is performed with a rapt, hushed intensity and a lovely English horn solo (the artist is uncredited). En Saga is a work of striking contrasts, juxtaposing moments of restive energy and brooding introspection. As in Verdi’s dramatic works, Toscanini masterfully realizes those contrasts, always giving the music space to achieve its narrative end. The scenario portrayed by Finlandia, like those in Beethoven’s Overture to Egmont and his opera FIDELIO, embraces the victory of freedom over tyranny. The Beethoven works spoke to Toscanini’s heart, and it is clear that Finlandia did the same. The stark opening measures are accorded an overwhelming sense of weight and despair, giving the heroic, triumphant latter portion an overwhelming cathartic impact. The set’s accompanying booklet includes track listings, Robert Matthew-Walker’s essay, Richard Caniell’s Recording Notes, and artist photos and bios, all enhancing the listening experience. This is a release that documents one of the giants of the podium, at the height of his powers, and offering master classes in the art of conducting. It is a release that commands attention from all who love this repertoire.”

- Ken Meltzer, FANFARE, Nov. / Dec., 2020

”Richard Caniell and IP have restored both of these superb and historic concerts in sound with admirable definition, dynamic range, and a lack of the harshness that could afflict Studio 8H broadcasts. A comparison of the Luisa Miller excerpts as featured in the Toscanini Complete RCA Collection and the IP set reveals the latter to have noticeably more warmth and presence.

Right from the start of the Overture to Verdi’s LUISA MILLER, it is clear just the amount of control Arturo Toscanini had over his forces. The string lines are performed with absolute unanimity, the underlying tautness of drama all there. Plenty of detail is here too, with the perfect introduction to Jan Peerce’s ‘Quando le sere placedo’. Virile and strong, Peerce’s voice has a touch of baritone that enriches the lower regions of his range.

The opening of ‘O don fatale’ from DON CARLO is here almost unlike any other: The use of gesture is absolutely the point, raw and compelling. There is a core of steel to Merriman that makes her ideal to follow on from Peerce. Ideal programming means the tone darkens for ‘Eri tu?’ from UN BALLO IN MASCHERA featuring Francesco Valentino in a heartfelt account. No wonder the audience’s enthusiasm interrupts the orchestral close.

The performance of ‘Pace, pace, mio Dio’ takes in extremes, from the forceful opening to the tenderness of Gertrude Ribla’s contribution. Putting it all together, after an interruption for the news of Mussolini’s downfall (included), is the third act of RIGOLETTO, which uses all four of the singers. Valentino is a darkly shaded Rigoletto, contrasting nicely with Jan Peerce’s Duke (how suave is his ‘La donna è mobile’). The dryness associated with Studio 8H seems softened here; dry, certainly, but illuminatingly so, allowing as much detail through as possible. Peerce is in superb form.

Sibelius’ Second Symphony is simply monumental. The second movement is the very epitome of an invocation of Finnish forests; only perhaps Sargent (BBC) has previously achieved this level. Discipline again is in evidence in the Vivacissimo; the scampering strings are impressive in themselves, but when it comes to the juxtapositions of fast and slow at the end of the movement, the effect is utterly remarkable, even modern. The finale, tensile in the way only Toscanini knew how to make it, alternately flies and glowers before it is crowned in major-mode glory. The odd violin swoop is very much a sign of the time, and all the more charming for it. Toscanini’s timings of Sibelius’ vast repetitions are perfectly judged, and what a privilege to hear all of this restored to greatness in this present release.

This is both another gem from Immortal Performances, and another underlining of the genius of the Toscanini.”

- Colin Clarke, FANFARE, Nov. / Dec., 2020