Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Arturo Toscanini conducts Giuseppe Verdi and Arrigo Boïto

   Giuseppe Verdi was most popular opera composer in nineteenth century. It is possible his fame was wider than any other opera composer in the whole history. After his great successes he composed the cycle of four religious works: Laudi Alla Vergine Maria (1888), Ave Maria (1889), Te Deum (1896) and Stabat Mater (1897) premiered April 7th, 1898 at Paris Grande Opéra and published together as Quattro pezzi sacri (Four Sacred Pieces). Whole cycle can be seen as Verdi’s farewell to musical scene. It is also an attempt of crossing the borders of opera compositions. Te Deum, the Ambrosian Hymn was set by dozens of composers and it is one of most common setting in history of music. Giuseppe Verdi had composed this hymn for two four-part choirs, soprano solo and large orchestra. It is powerful, almost ecstatic act of worship.
   Opposite position takes Prologue to the opera Mefistofele by Arrigo Boïto, composer of very few works, famous Verdi’s librettist (Otello, Falstaff), poet and writer. The Prologue is a kind of argue between Mephistopheles and heaven choirs worshiping God or being God’s incarnation. Mephistopheles mocks with God and deride with humankind. Conversation between God and Mephistopheles ends with their bet about Faust fate. Although Prologue construction is closer to oratorio than opera, this part had best reception after premiere of Boïto’s opera. Whole work is one of best musical settings based on Johann Wolfgang Goethe’s Faust. This is also version closest to the original story.

Arturo Toscanini - Verdi's Te Deum & Boïto's Mefistofele (1955)

   Verdi’s hymn and Prologue from Mefistofele by Arrigo Boïto are two elements of one program conducted by Arturo Toscanini. This very interesting album consists of one LP record published by RCA Victor (LM 1849) in cassette with eight-page insert including original Latin and Italian texts with English translation. It was produced in 1955 on the basis of live radio broadcast of March 14, 1954. This radio performance was ten days after April 4th, 1954 Toscanini had announced his retirement. Conducting the NBC Symphony Orchestra, and two choirs, Arturo Toscanini gave one of his unforgettable performances. In Te Deum by Giuseppe Verdi leading part was sung by Robert Shaw Chorale, the choir of Toscanini’s choirmaster and probably the best choir recording for RCA in fifties. In Prologue to Boïto’s opera their parts were taken Nicola Moscona as Mefistofele and The Columbus Boychoir directed by Herbert Huffman. It’s needless to say this release is excellent opportunity to see Italian postromanticism from rare point of view.
   Toscanini was one of last great Italian romantics, who took part in finishing Boïto’s Nerone. His phenomenal musical talent and his achievements had set direction for developing contemporary art of conducting the orchestra. Such recordings are always great medium to test aesthetical criteria, then revolutionary, today maybe historical. Seeing interpretative differences we can better understand real capacity of musical form. In 1955 artistic quality of NBC Symphony – these time one of leading orchestras in the world – and sound of new recording system, based on high quality magnetic tape and full range pressing was the new exciting technology. Four stars, even with some cracks this record can be ravishing.

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   Producer's notice on Toscanini's album insert can be interesting as a document of technical solution. It says about “new raised center and outer edge which is an RCA Victor improvement designed to help protect the playing surface of the record from abrasion, scratches, and any contact with other records”. Those were the days when most records were stored just as a stack of discs and most of them were out of sleeve. Maybe this is the reason to give the regular cassette bound for just one LP edition. This album intentionally differs from other productions and it’s easy to understand why. 

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