Showcase Festival of Music, Vol 2
These two DVDs derive from the vintage years of American TV when major companies such as Ford were prepared to sponsor prestige concerts of classical music running to an hour and a-half, including commercials. You can easily programme the ads out, but they carry a nostalgic documentary value in their own right – fascinating for a single viewing. What is also remarkable is the quality of the recorded sound, mono of course and with a dry studio acoustic, but clear and not lacking body. The programmes were televised in both colour and black-and-white, but (probably because of cost) only the black-and-white originals were retained. The camerawork is primitive, but you soon forget the limitations with such stellar casts: each performer is given vivid presence.
Charles Laughton is the avuncular host of the January programme, going characteristically over the top in his gushing praise of every artist. But the standard of performance is high, with Leonard Warren and Jan Peerce stirring in Pagliacci, Milanov a commanding Tosca, and Roberta Peters glittering in the Hoffmann Doll Song. This is followed by the Waltz (bringing a few bars of marvellously agile playing from the orchestral violins); but the destruction of poor Olympia is not very convincingly managed.
The star quality continues with Marion Anderson’s ripely moving He’s got the whole world in His hands and Risë Stevens’ highly dramatic Card Song from Carmen. It is a treat to watch and hear Gregor Piatigorsky play Weber, and the only relative disappointment is Isaac Stern’s somewhat scrappy account of the finale from the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, which sounds under-rehearsed; soloist and orchestra fail to keep together. The highlight is undoubtedly Renata Tebaldi (making her TV début) with Jussi Björling, both in superb voice, singing the Act 1 Love duet from La bohème. We have had this excerpt before, in Teldec’s ‘The Art of Singing’ (1/97), but it is just as moving here.
Volume 2 is hosted by a suave, laid-back José Ferrer. The golden-voiced Marian Anderson returns to sing three more spirituals very affectingly and Segovía (playing a guitar which dwarfs his slight figure) offers Bach and Torroba miniatures in an interlude lasting less than three minutes. The three key items are more substantial. Many will relish Victoria de Los Angeles in 19 minutes from Act 1 of La traviata (just about adequately staged), even if her supporting cast, including Barry Morrell as Alfredo, is not strong. Then comes a scintillating account from Rubinstein of an abridged (17'19") performance of Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, which is fascinating to watch, even if the camera angles are too limited. He gets excellent support from Alfred Wallenstein, especially in the passionate 18th variation. The closing highlight is Boris Christoff’s magnificent account of the Death scene from Boris Godunov, very well staged and marvellously sung and acted. We have also had this before in ‘The Art of Singing’, but it is riveting here, too. What a voice!