Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Review: Tchaikovsky - Manfred & Romeo and Juliet - Toscanini - Live, 1953 (Music & Arts CD-4260, 2004)

Outstanding performances in outstanding sound

Tchaikovsky being one my most favourite composers and his magisterial Manfred Symphony being one of my greatest all-time favourites, I have listened to quite a few recordings in (vain) search of perfection: Maazel, Muti, Tilson Thomas, Ashkenazy, Jansons, Pletnev. These are all stereo, many are also digital, and they all are fine renditions in their own way. However, for pure excitement coupled with monolithic unity, for sheer grandeur and passion, this 1953 mono live recording of Arturo Toscanini and the NBC Symphony easily tops them all. Here the legendary Italian conductor surpassed even himself: his 1949 studio recording, fine as it certainly is, pales in comparison.

I appreciate the liner notes by Harvey Sachs that Toscanini was not in his best form that night, but I definitely disagree completely with him. To be sure, there are few mild inaccuracies that are naturally fixed in the studio recording, but here they simply don't matter. Neither does Toscanini's highly questionable – indeed, by modern standards, totally unacceptable – tampering with the score. For my part, the cymbals in the end of the first movement and the cutting of nearly one fourth from the finale are perfectly justified by the results. Many moments in this recording – most notably the apocalyptic finale of the opening movement – must be heard to be believed. They simply are unbelievable. The only modern recording that reminds me, if vaguely and remotely, to Toscanini's sweeping vision is Maazel's (with the Vienna Philharmonic, DECCA, 1971), but even he, except from a sonic point of view, is way behind the Italian maestro.

We are indeed fortunate to have this release of Music & Arts, because the sound here is absolutely incredible. I have seldom heard such stupendous bass and dynamic range in a mono recording, and a live one at that. Yes, the loudest moments in the brass are a little scratchy, but it's no big deal. Otherwise it's difficult to guess the year of the recording. The only caveat is that at several places (e.g. in the end of Romeo and Juliet) the bass may be a trifle overblown. But in most places it is just perfect, adding a natural depth and precious vividness, both usually missing on recordings.

Romeo and Juliet is not quite as mind-blowing, but it's a terrific performance nonetheless. It's every bit as great as Toscanini's excellent 1946 studio rendition, and sonically it is of course superior; except for the same slight problems with the brass, the sound is superb, if not quite as full as the one in Manfred. Interpretation-wise, Toscanini's conception is at least as majestic and profound as those of many great conductors after him, including Karajan, Ashkenazy, Barenboim, Boult, Gergiev and Pletnev.

All in all, a stunning CD indispensable for the collections of all Toscanini and Tchaikovsky buffs, provided that the latter don't have some aversion to mono recordings and occasional minor technical imperfections. For my part, the unbelievable sound is but a bonus to some of the most astonishing music-making from the last century. Like almost every great artist, live in the concert hall Arturo Toscanini reached heights unknown in the recording studio. How lucky we are to have such gems captured on record and re-issued in such a fabulous sound!

PS A pale version of Manfred is available on YT. It's the same recording, but the sound is not nearly so spectacular as the one on the CD. 

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