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Philip Borg-Wheeler
MusicWeb International, October 2008

This celebrated recording of Otello represents Toscanini in his element, keeping a tight rein on the drama throughout. Some listeners will miss that extra degree of repose in more inward numbers such as The Willow Song. Nevertheless, one could hardly describe Toscanini as perfunctory here. Neither does he linger in the Love Duet, but I honestly do not feel any loss of expressiveness, and I would say the same about all the most affecting points in the score. As for the obviously thrilling numbers, Toscanini generates his usual fierce, gripping intensity.

From his first “Esultate!”, Vinay raises high expectations which are magnificently fulfilled. For me, no singer has been as electrifying and heroic as Vickers in this role (under Serafin), but Vinay is undoubtedly among the finest alternatives. …In general one rarely hears the three major roles as well sung and satisfyingly interpreted. This set will not only stand repeated listening, but also increasingly reveal its classic qualities.

As for the recorded sound, it has to be heard to be believed. In the producer’s note the estimable Ward Marston states: “the sound on these discs [the original 16 inch lacquer-coated aluminium] is astonishing and, for the most part, they are astonishingly quiet”. The estimable Marston has “made no attempt to ‘enhance’ the sound of these broadcasts”, adding no artificial reverberation and making only three small patches using rehearsal material. The radio announcements, synopses and applause are all included.

For me, this 1947 performance is among the essential recordings of this magnificent work. 

Ewan McCormick
MusicWeb International, March 2008

Toscanini’s famous 1947 performance of Verdi’s penultimate opera has long been accorded the status of a gramophone classic. Toscanini, played in the first performance of Otello at La Scala in 1887 and here some sixty(!) years later his conducting of the work was astounding in its fire and drive. Originally spread over two evenings, the performance was subsequently issued on LP minus the studio announcements; what we have here are remasterings of the original lacquers of the complete studio performances, including the announcer’s introduction and narration. This selfsame studio broadcast - as opposed to the “tidied-up” commercial release - also appeared on Guild a couple of years back. Guild utilised the original studio masters rather than subsequent RCA editions which attempted to superimpose artificial reverberation to compensate for the dry studio acoustic. The sound on these Naxos CDs is singularly clear and bright, with an amazing dynamic range for its time. Given the notoriously dry acoustics of many of Toscanini’s studio performances, there is a surprising amount of depth and perspective in many of the large ensembles. The inclusion of the announcer’s comments may be a mixed blessing to some: on the one hand they help to recreate the feel of the original broadcast, on the other hand many listeners may feel that they interrupt the progress of the music. Easily remedied by programming them out.

Ramón Vinay, here captured at the outset of his career went on to become one of the world’s reigning exponents of the taxing title role before the appearance of the trumpet-toned but unsubtle Mario del Monaco in the 1950s. Vinay’s baritonal voice lent extra weight to this and subsequent heldentenor excursions. He also sang Tristan, Siegmund and other roles at Bayreuth and memorably undertook the role of Otello for Furtwängler in Salzburg in 1951. His is a big, rather ungainly voice, but what dramatic involvement! Toscanini himself said of the singer “He is a complete artist, magnificent and unsurpassed in roles which require power and violence. At the present time no other artist comes near Vinay’s interpretation of Otello.” The old Record Guide was a bit sniffy about his performance, and it’s true that in recent years Placido Domingo has created a more human, rounded portrayal of the Moor. But Domingo has had the benefit of over thirty years experience of the role which Vinay at this stage in his career did not; his remains a remarkably imaginative performance.

Herva Nelli’s Desdemona has also received some lukewarm responses over the years. Hers is a pure, “white” sort of voice, not lacking in power for some of the bigger ensembles but overall giving a rather uninvolved impression, and perhaps lacking just the last degree of imagination. She rises splendidly to her Act IV scenes, however, and both the Willow Song and Ave Maria are affectingly sung. The studio audience here and elsewhere is remarkably quiet – they knew how to behave in those days!

Valdengo sings a characterful Iago; not as nuanced or as commanding as Gobbi, for instance, but a fine performance nonetheless. His Credo is magnificently sung, if rather generalised in its portrayal of evil. Other singers have delved more deeply into the psychological aspects of the character.

When all is said and done it is Toscanini’s, or rather Verdi’s, show. Listen to how, in the opening scenes, Toscanini is careful to bring out the rhythmic energy of the music, allowing us to hear orchestral figurations that are frequently overwhelmed by a welter of sound. Then he can fine down his forces to a mere whisper for the Act I duet or the Act IV scenes, but at the same time never losing the sense of forward momentum that characterises his performance. Acts 2 and 3, with Iago’s plotting coming to its tragic fruition, are gripping in their cumulative power. The spectacle of Desdemona’s humiliation and Otello’s collapse against the very public background of the big Act 3 ensembles are made to contrast with the personal grief and tragedy of Desdemona’s murder in Act 4 and Otello’s eventual discovery – too late – that he has been Iago’s pawn. A truly great performance and one that does full justice to Verdi’s masterpiece. A synopsis is included, but no texts or translations.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, February 2008

Taken from studio broadcasts made in New York in December 1947, the performance has become the benchmark by which all others will be judged. The accompanying booklet tells us that the present release should not be confused with that which has appeared on the RCA label. The source of this reissue is a set of 16 inch lacquer-coated aluminium discs recorded nominally at 33rpm. The surfaces were amazingly quiet and only minimum interface has been used to reduce crackle, though the performance has been patched at three points with available material taken from rehearsals. The result is better than we dare have expected, the harsh and hard quality of the RCA transfer has disappeared, and while the dynamic and frequency range is restricted by the equipment available at that time, the detail is unusually high. Otello was taken by the leading exponent of the day, Ramon Vinay, a singer who was tight at the top of his range, but used that to characterise the anguish of the tormented husband. When finally goaded by Iago into thinking his wife was in love with another, he roars like a wounded bull, throwing his weight of voice to terrify those around him. Giuseppe Valdengo’s Iago was more vocally reliable than sinister, but he at least avoided the histrionics we find elsewhere, and the oath of allegiance with Otello is suitably thrilling. Herva Nelli’s Desdemona was the weak point and also badly miscast, her voice rather plain, though she used it with considerable skill. Taken as a whole the cast is nothing to get excited about. So what makes it special? That comes with the presence of Arturo Toscanini as conductor and perceptive interpreter. It is not the hard-driven reading described by some commentators, but he brings an electric charge to the whole score, underlining the way a man can be driven to madness by insinuation. His NBC Symphony respond with playing of real passion and sound every bit an opera ensemble. Ramon Vinay did make another ‘live’ recording that has recently surfaced from London’s Covent Garden. There he had a better supporting cast, much improved sound, and an admirable conductor in Rafael Kubelik. But Toscanini was something special and if you have the RCA version then you must put it to one side as this sound quality is in a different league, and adds much to the beauty of the performance. I am not quite sure whether including the original spoken radio introductions was really a good idea, but it is on separate tracks that you can take omit.

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