VERDI Falstaff – Toscanini
These two vitally idiomatic performances of Verdi’s crowning masterpiece, both deriving from radio performances, took place within six months of each other. One, the Toscanini, justifiably recognised as a classic, is now receiving yet another remastering; the other, almost as rewarding an experience, is hardly known, its issue being practically confined in the first place to Italy (Cetra LPs). It has in Rossi a conductor almost as aware as Toscanini of the score’s possibilities, and a similar ability to the veteran’s to convey his wishes to the cast. The reading bristles with life, detail and a real sense of occasion.
Rossi has the benefit of an entirely native cast, one which few, if any, of the disc’s successors has enjoyed. Among the singers, Taddei, at 33 tackling the role at about the same age as Terfel today, has the rounded, mellifluous tone, the verbal acuity and the immediacy of communication to make him a lovable as well as a wholly Italianate interpreter. He recorded the role some 30 years later with Karajan (Philips, 12/84 – nla); that is just as enjoyable a performance, if inevitably by then less assured in vocal terms. The youthful Carteri is an ideally engaging Alice, Meletti a Ford as keen with the text as Taddei; in addition, a poised Nannetta from the veteran Pagliughi, still sounding young in voice, a fruity Quickly from Pini and among the most lyrically ardent of all Fentons in Renzi, all grace the set. The male comprimarii are excellent. Only the Meg is slightly disappointing. At mid-price this is good value, though there’s no text, translation or note on the set’s provenance (all too typical of Preiser in its careless disregard of its customers) and some questionable technical ‘enhancement’ of the original recording, never good even in its own day.
By contrast, the refurbishment of the Toscanini has improved a good deal on what we’ve previously heard. The performance remains masterly, the vastly experienced conductor and Verdian disciple still at the height of his powers. The long hours of preparation and fraught rehearsals (which preserved tapes reveal) produce superb results here. Valdengo, Toscanini’s most willing pupil, surpasses even his superb Iago for the old maestro, with a Falstaff of wit and resource. If his voice doesn’t have the ‘fat’ sound of Taddei, he is just as sensitive and subtle an interpreter. I love them both, portrayals to set beside Stabile’s template of the role. Nelli is an adequate Alice, but not quite as winningly attractive or characterful as Carteri. Elmo is a superb Quickly, Merriman a charming Meg. Rossi’s young lovers have a slight edge over Toscanini’s, though Stich-Randall has some fine moments. Guarrera, as Ford, has a better voice than Meletti but not quite such a feeling for his words, and he and Valdengo are rather alike in timbre.
The Karajan set, the first in stereo, retains its supremacy in terms of sound and musical perfection (too sophisticated a reading, perhaps). Gobbi, for all his amazing skills as an interpreter, doesn’t have quite the voice one associates with the Fat Knight, too slender in timbre, and Schwarzkopf, for all her command of detail, never sounds like a Verdi soprano. The rest of the cast is well-nigh faultless. All these sets are worth having, but it is the Toscanini I would rescue from the flames in extremis, especially in its new and admirable incarnation.'