Toscanini's superb 1937 Falstaff newly restored & remastered
One of the greatest recordings, now given the full Pristine XR treatment
This remarkable recording, made at a full, live stage performance at the Salzburg Festival in August 1937, was the second of three performances given by Toscanini during the festival, during which time he also conducted Beethoven's Fidelio, Mozart's Die Zauberflöte and Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. In deciding to remaster it from the particular source available to me - six LP sides in a "private recording" set of discs issued by "Penzance Records", I was well aware of the potential inadequacies of the source material and thus the possible limitation of results.
The main source for this recording exists as a selenophone film at the New York Public Library, and was the source for a recent CD issue (read more about the Selenophone in this 1990 NY Times article). With this unavailable to me, the decision to work from these LPs was taken after considerable investigation into their sound quality, when compared with both the newer transfers and other previous LP incarnations. It soon became clear that the Penzance transfers were actually very well made and apparently true to their source, with little or no filtering or other intervention, and thus provided an excellent source from which to work (they remain the favoured transfers of this recording for some Toscanini lovers).
Even so, it was only after a considerable amount of XR remastering work and careful comparisons with other releases that I decided to go ahead and complete what has been a lengthy and difficult restoration (and would have been so regardless of the source). This would not have been contemplated had it not been clear to me that many significant sonic improvements might be had over all the previous issues I've been able to sample, something I believe has been achieved here.
My aim was to really try and open out the sound - as with the majority of recordings of this era, regardless of recording medium, the frequency response was unbalanced and uneven. In some previous transfers this has been exacerbated by excessive filtering, particularly in the treble end, producing a distant and muffled sound.
By contrast, the XR remastering approach has served to open out the top end considerably, as well as firming up the bass and giving the whole sound a much more solid dimension - something further enhanced in the Ambient Stereo version of this release. Naturally this also revealed further flaws in the original recording which then had to be tackled - hiss levels varied throughout the recording, from barely audible to quite intrusive, and I've tried to even these out as much as possible. I was also able to tackle a pitch variation which changed as the recording progressed, dropping by almost a quarter tone by the end of the opera.
Clearly this is a live recording - footsteps are heard from the stage, soloists move around , occasionally slipping outside the direct pick-up range of the microphone (or microphones - I don't know if this was a single or multiple microphone recording) and thus heard somewhat distantly, though always audible.
It's easy to underestimate the technical difficulties posed in recording such a performance today, let alone in 1937, just two years after the first commercial recording of an opera by Mozart - the fact that this incredible performance could be so well-captured is a testament to the skills of the radio engineers of the time. I hope that this new remastering will bring the listener a few steps closer to the impression this performance must have given to those lucky enough to be present for the performance.
VERDI - Falstaff
Falstaff - Mariano Stabile
Ford - Pietro Biasini
Fenton - Dino Borgioli
Dr.Cajus - Alfredo Tedeschi
Bardolph - Giuseppe Nessi
Pistol - Virgilio Lazzari
Mrs.Ford - Franca Somigli
Nanette - Augusta Oltrabella
Mrs.Page - Mita Vasari
Mrs.Quickly - Angelica Cravcenco
Scenic Designer - Guido Salvini
Stage Director - Robert Kautsky
Costumes - Ladislaus Czettel
Choreography - Margarete Wallmann
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Vienna State Opera Ballet & Chorus
conducted by Arturo Toscanini
Time: The reign of Henry IV, 1399 to 1413
Place: Windsor, England
A room at the Garter Inn
Falstaff is surrounded by his servants Bardolph, Pistola, and the innkeeper. Dr. Caius arrives and accuses him of robbery, but the excited doctor is soon ejected. Falstaff hands two letters to each of his servants for delivery to Mistress Ford and to Mistress Page, two wealthy married women. In these two identical letters, Falstaff professes his love for each of them, although it is really their husbands’ money that he covets. His servants Bardolph and Pistol refuse, claiming that 'honour' prevents them from obeying him. Falstaff sends the letters by a page instead. Falstaff then responds ironically by confronting his honourable servants and shouts (L'onore! Ladri! Voi state ligi all’honor vostro, voi! / “Honor! You rogues! You are bound by your honor…”) and chases them out of his sight.
Alice and Meg have received Falstaff's identical letters. They exchange them, and in conjunction with Mistress Quickly, resolve to punish the knight. Meanwhile, Ford has been warned of the letters by Bardolph and Pistol. All three are thirsty for revenge. Finding themselves alone for once, a brief love duet between Fenton (an employee of Ford) and Nannetta follows. The women return home and Mistress Quickly is requested to invite Falstaff to a rendez-vous with Alice. The men also arrive at the scene, and Bardolph and Pistol are persuaded to introduce Ford to Falstaff, but under an assumed name.
A room at the Garter Inn
Bardolph and Pistol (now in the pay of Ford), pretending to beg for forgiveness for past transgressions, announce to their master the arrival of Mistress Quickly, who delivers the invitation to go to Alice's house that very day between the hours of two and three. She also delivers an answer by Mistress Page and assures Falstaff that neither are aware of the other's invitaton. Falstaff celebrates his potential success ("Va, vecchio John" /”Go, old Jack, go your own way”). Ford is now introduced as Signor Fontana; he offers money to the fat knight to intercede for him with Mistress Ford. Falstaff is puzzled at the request, "Fontana" says that if Mistress Ford falls for him, it will be easier that she will fall for him too. Falstaff agrees with pleasure and reveals that he has already succeeded, because he has a rendez-vous with her at two; while he dresses in his most splendid array, Ford is consumed with jealousy (È sogno o realtà? / "Is it a dream or reality?").
A room in Ford's house
The three women plot their strategy ("Gaie Comari di Windsor" / “Merry wives of Windsor, the time has come!”. Nanetta also learns that her father plans to marry her with Dr. Caius, but all the women declare that that will not happen. Mistress Quickly announces Falstaff's arrival, Mistress Ford has a large hamper placed in readiness. Falstaff's attempts to seduce Alice with tales of his past glory ("Quand'ero paggio del Duca di Norfolk" / “When I page to the Duke of Norfolk I was slender”) are cut short, as Mistress Quickly reports the arrival of Master Ford. When the angry Ford and his friends appear with the aim of catching Falstaff red handed; he hides first behind a screen and then the ladies hide the knight in the hamper. In the meantime, Fenton and Nannetta have hidden behind the screen. Upon returning from their search for Falstaff, the men hear the sound of a kiss behind the screen. They think that they will at last grab Falstaff, but instead find Fenton, who is ordered by Ford to leave, in the meantime Falstaff has been complaining that he is sweating too much inside the hamper. When the men again proceed with the search, the women order the hamper to be thrown into the ditch through the window, where Falstaff is compelled to endure the jeers of the crowd.
Before the inn
In a gloomy mood, Falstaff curses the sorry state of the world. However, some mulled wine soon improves his mood. The fat knight receives another invitation through Mistress Quickly, who blames the servants for what happened to him, the invitation consists of going to Herne's Oak dressed up as the Herne the Hunter, aka the Black Hunter. Although dubious at first, Falstaff promises to go. He enters the house with Mistress Quickly, and the men and women concoct a plan for his punishment. Dr. Caius is promised Nannetta's hand in marriage and is told how he may recognize her in her disguise, but the plot is overheard by Mistress Quickly.
Herne's Oak in Windsor Park on a moonlit midnight
Fenton arrives at the oak tree and sings of his happiness ("Dal labbro il canto estasiato vola" / “From my lips, my song of ecstasy flies”) ending with “Lips that are kissed lose none of their allure”. Nanetta enters to finish the line with “Indeed, they renew it, like the moon”. The women arrive and disguise Fenton as a monk, telling him that they have arranged things so as to spoil Dr. Caius' plans. Nanetta, playing the role of the Fairy Queen, instructs her helpers ("Sul fil d'un soffio etesio" / “On the breath of a fragrant breeze, fly, nimble spirits”) before all the characters arrive on the scene. Falstaff's attempted love scene with Mistress Ford is interrupted by the announcement that witches are approaching, and the men, who are disguised as elves and fairies, soundly thrash Falstaff. Sir Falstaff recognizes Bardolph in disguise and the joke is over, but he acknowledges that he has received his due. Ford announces that a wedding shall ensue (a second couple "coincidentally" asks to be married at that time also) and Dr. Caius finds that instead of Nannetta, he has landed Bardolph who is dressed in the same fairy queen outfit as Nanetta and Ford unwittingly has married Fenton and Nannetta. Falstaff, pleased to find himself not the only dupe, proclaims in a fugue, which the entire company sings, that all the world is folly and all are figures of fun (Tutto nel mondo è burla... Tutti gabbati! / "Everything in the world a jest...").
MusicWeb International Review
Relaxed, detached yet in full control and able to extract the very essence of Verdi's operatic and dramatic intentions
This Falstaff is not the Toscanini recording described
by Gramophone as 'one of the greatest of all operatic
sets, and one of Toscanini's most perfect operatic recordings'.
It's a re-engineering of the full live performance staged in
August 1937 at the Salzburg Festival. That Falstaff was
actually the second of three remarkable performances by Toscanini
at the height of his powers … relaxed, detached yet in
full control and able to extract the very essence of Verdi's
operatic and dramatic intentions. This was the same year in which
the conductor had successes at Salzburg with Fidelio, Zauberflöte and Meistersinger.
This Falstaff has been transferred by Andrew Rose - not from the collection of selenophone film at the New York Public Library - which was used for another recent CD - but from a series of six LPs containing a 'private recording'. The same performance (presumably from another source) was also previously issued on Andante (AN3080) with a recording - for comparison - of the same opera by Karajan from 20 years later with the same orchestra but, frankly, a weaker cast of soloists.
These CDs from French Pristine Audio come minimally packaged: the two in a single jewel case with next to no liner-notes. The recording is also available from the Pristine website as a zipped MP3 download. Given the age and roughness of the mono source, the sound quality - although by no means high fidelity - is more than adequate for you to enjoy Verdi's last opera.
Almost the first thing you'll notice is that this is a stage recording. You're well aware not just the 'noises off' (applause, coughing) but also of the movement, 'business' and dialogue. In the end these actually add to the experience. The action of Falstaff is concentrated and inward-looking: these performers convey a sense of great immediacy. Just what the work needs. This includes the orchestra, which is closely recorded. To bring the comedy to life and make the deceptions, characterisation and shifts in the players' fortunes as vivid as possible there needs to be a sense of space. Space in which to mirror the body language, for example, and illuminate the way the personalities interact and react to the twists in their (mis)fortunes.
After all, Verdi described Falstaff as a commedia lirica, Toscanini's is more of a dramatic conception. Comedy is not missing: the delivery of the principals (Stabile, Biasini, Borgioli and Somigli, in particular) is forward, pressing and zesty. This is particularly true, for example, towards the end of Act II [CD.2 trs.1-3]: there is an almost tangible energy in the coming and going, the bustle, and in the ways in which the mischief is ever more deeply confounded. But - as later, more detached, scenes show - there was never rush or busyness for their own sake in this performance.
With the exception, really, of the Fenton-Nannetta interest, the plot of Falstaff is simple and linear. Toscanini elicits from his players and singers an equally closely and clearly driven account of the events of a few intense days in such a way that their characters (foibles, weaknesses, constancy, self-deception) are transparent - yet still… entertaining! Each action, dialogue, solo and exchange somehow contributes to a greater sense of their selves.
As is often the case with Toscanini, it's the ensemble work (so important in Falstaff) that strikes one. Not just a singleness of purpose or sense of team-work; but also that the soloists derive the life and interpretative impetus from a source - Shakespeare, when all said and done - in which they all obviously believe.
This is unlikely to be most people's first choice as a Falstaff. Yet it's much more than a historical document. It has persuasive performances … Stabile's Falstaff, Borgioli's Fenton and Biasini's Ford in particular. Their interpretations suggested (let's not say 'dictated') the approach for a generation or two. The boxy sound and lack of libretto or background material are minor drawbacks.
If you appreciate the huge contribution which Toscanini made to music-making in the first half of the last century; if you want a valid and special Falstaff; if you want to get to know the opera anew or see it in a new light after such performances as those by Abbado with the Berlin Philharmonic on DG (471194) or Solti with the RCA Italian Opera Chorus and Orchestra on Decca (425002), this effective reissue is worth a look.