Toscanini and opera

Gramophone Tue 3rd January 2017

Shortly after the conductor's death, Spike Hughes reflected on his contribution to opera for Gramophone in February 1957

Arturo Toscanini made his first professional appearance in front of an orchestra on June 25, 1886; he made his last on June 5, 1954. On both occasions he conducted a Verdi opera - a coincidence which may be considered to have had a symbolical as well as a literal significance, for in many ways Toscanini's life can be said to have begun and ended with the music of Giuseppe Verdi. Certainly, Toscanini's outlook on all music was dominated by his experience as a conductor of opera; the lyric theatre was in his blood; he brought drama to music and spent a lifetime trying to get orchestral instruments to ape the human voice in those lyrical passages which always set him shouting 'Cantare! Cantare!' at rehearsals.

Twenty years ago I used to consider that Toscanini had not done well by my generation; we were too young to have known much of him as an opera conductor and he showed no signs of wanting to leave us any more in the way of a recorded legacy of opera than the immortal Traviata preludes and one or two overtures and Wagner excerpts. Toscanini put all that right in the last 10 years of his life when he recorded Fidelio, La Bohème, and four Verdi operas - La traviata, Un ballo in maschera, Otello and Falstaff - as well as the second act of Gluck's Orfeo and the Prologue to Mefistofele. (A fifth Verdi opera, Aida, was recorded from a broadcast in 1949, but from all accounts is unlikely ever to be issued. Tape trouble, or something.)

Although one cherished a forlorn hope that he might record some more Verdi, or even another Puccini opera - like Manon Lescaut or Turandot - in spite of his 'official' retirement, most of us, I think, began to reflect on Toscanini's life-work, particularly as it is represented in his recordings, as soon as we heard he had completed his Ballo in maschera in June, 1954. (A recording of Aida would perhaps have been a more appropriate this-is-where-we-came-in farewell to music, but there is no doubt that one way and another Un ballo in maschera played its part in Toscanini's life. It was the first Verdi opera he ever heard, and it was owing to an argument with the Scala audience on the question of encores in the opera that Toscanini so spectacularly walked out of the theatre after the second scene in 1903 and did not set foot in La Scala again for three years.)

The outcome of my own reflection was that perhaps in the end it was Toscanini's Verdi which proved the greatest revelation of all. His Beethoven was always a tremendous experience, but one had already glimpsed the peaks of the nine symphonies through the haze of other people's performances; with Toscanini and Beethoven it was really a matter of confessing that here was the way one had always dreamed of hearing Beethoven sound. But with Verdi there had never been any peaks to be sighted through the thick low-lying cloud of traditional 'singers' opera' performances; one suspected that peaks did exist from looking at the relief map known as a full score, but one never knew what they were really like. Toscanini's recording of his four Verdi operas (what applies to them applies to the Requiem as well, of course) were not a case of this particular music sounding at last as one had always dreamed it should sound; but of sounding as one had never dreamed it could possibly sound.

It was the sheer novelty of the experience of Toscanini's Traviata recording which, I believe, was as much as anything responsible for the rather unenthusiastic press which greeted it. It must have been a shock to find that what is commonly regarded as a 'singers' opera' (an art-form Verdi never recognised) had been transformed not - as some suggested - into a conductor's opera, but into a composer's opera. Time and again in that performance of La traviata Toscanini put things back into the score which a slip-shod, singer-ridden tradition had thrown overboard. Cross your heart and tell me how many times you have heard Violetta's cry of 'Amami, Alfredo' in Act 2 - the complete phrase - sung as Toscanini insists it should be sung, which is by giving the full value to the notes Verdi wrote for those heartrending 18 bars of farewell. It is in details like this, in the restoration of apparently insignificant punctuation-notes for strings to the right beat in the bar when Violetta, at the end of her scene with Germont in Act 2, tearfully echoes her 'Conosca il sacrifizio', in Toscanini's acceptance, first, last and always, of the belief that Verdi rarely did anything without a good reason that his recording of La traviata is in its way one of the most rewarding of all his opera performances. Complaints that this Traviata is too tense, or rigid, are also common; leaving aside tenseness, which is by no means out of place in this opera, in nearly every case where he is considered to be 'driving' the singers Toscanini will be found to be taking the music slower than the official metronome marking indicated in the score. It is the old illusion, I fear, which fooled so many people when they first heard Toscanini; the illusion created by crystal-clear orchestral texture and instrumental articulation, that the music sounded faster than it really was.

The purely sentimental reflection on hearing Toscanini's recording of Otello, that the first time the second violoncello part of the famous introduction to the love duet in Act 1 was heard in public the passage was played by the conductor when he was 19 years old in the Scala orchestra in 1887, is not so important as the fact that it provides us with the conductor's rarest link with the musical past - his personal link with Verdi, to whom he always had privileged access. Toscanini's association with the premiere of Otello not only gives his recording a unique authenticity but has coloured his whole approach to the opera in a way which seems, most curiously, not to have been noted by those who must have heard earlier performances of Otello under his direction. At least, from my own experience of how little a Toscanini performance varied in its essentials or detail with the years, it seems unlikely that his recording made in 1947 should have included elements not already present and noticeable in his performances of the opera in, say, 1894 at Pisa or 1912 at the Metropolitan. As it was, hearing Toscanini's Otello unprepared for the first time in 1953, the performance came as a complete surprise, not least for the way the centre of gravity in the opera seemed to have swung entirely in the direction of Iago. The quality of evil with which Toscanini endowed the music of Iago is more than unusually sinister: it is also dead right, of course, for it must be remembered that Verdi's original title for his opera was not Otello but Iago.

Consistency was a predominant characteristic of Toscanini's Falstaff, and it is fascmating to find the same touches occurring nuance-for-nuance in the 1953 recording which one remembers from the Salzburg performance of 1935 - the ludicrously optimistic elegance, for instance, of the music accompanying Falstaff's appearance before Ford in all his full courting dress, and the subtle conception of the whole of the last scene of the opera as a kind of super-scherzo, with the 'pizzica!' chorus setting the basic tempo for the final fugue. There is the same feeling of solid re-creation about Toscanini's 1944 Fidelio whIch has all the tremendous nobility of the 1935 Salzburg performance, though unfortunately no Lotte Lehmann. Unfortunately, owing to the congenital reluctance of engineers to persevere with the long-playing record when they can play with atom bombs, posterity has been denied what it should have inherited from the Salzburg years - complete recordings of Toscanini's astonishing performances there of Meistersinger and The Magic Flute. The Wagner (and I am no Wagnerite) was a fascinating experience, with an orchestral texture of such clarity that one revised all one's ideas about Wagner's reputation as an orchestrator. The Mozart was unique inasmuch as The Magic Flute was almost the only music by the composer that Toscanini really understood - with the typical exception of the poignant instrumental postlude to Pamina's great G minor aria. Toscanini went on with the strict tempo he had maintained throughout, regardless and relentless.

If Toscanini's genius consisted of observing what the composer intended, it consisted equally of disregarding it sometimes, too; and not always to the composer's advantage. He bequeathed us an authoritative recording of a masterpiece which he brought into the world - Puccini's Bohème. One could wish for no better legacy; but what on earth made him ignore one of the most clearly written instructions in all opera - the allargando so careful)y marked all over the last bars of Act 2? There was probably an answer, but if we knew the answer to everything Toscanini did we could all be Toscaninis, I suppose.

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