Toscanini’s Acoustics Reissued

cover GHCD3504

GALILEI: Gagliarda (orch. Respighi). DONIZETTI: Don Pasquale: Overture. BERLIOZ: Damnation de Faust: Rakoczy March. MENDELSSOHN: A Midsummer Nights’ Dream: Scherzo (2 tks, 1921 & 1926*); Nocturne;* Wedding March. BIZET: L’Arlesienne Suite No. 2: Farandole. Carmen: Aragonaise. MASSENET: Scènes Pittoresques: No. 4, Fête Bohème. WOLF-FERRARI: The Secret of Suzanna: Overture. PIZZETTI: La Pisanelle Suite: No. 2. MOZART: Symphony No. 39 in Eb: III & IV. BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 1: IV. Symphony No. 5: IV / La Scala Orch., Milan; *New York Philharmonic-Symphony Orch.; Arturo Toscanini, cond / Guild GHCD3504

When I saw this release listed in the Naxos New Release Guide for November, I just ignored it. After all, these recordings are not only famous but have been issued on LP and CD many, many times. Some people swear by the old RCA-BMG Toscanini Collection pressings of the late 1980s-early 1990s; others prefer the Italian release on Grammofono 2000, still others the Naxos Historical release processed by Ward Marston.

But after listening to a few tracks, I felt that I had to review it, because to my ears these are the best transfers of all.

Why? Because whatever one Peter Reynolds of Reynold’s Remastering did to these old recordings, they sound better than I’ve ever heard them. Instead of presenting them “as is” with the original shrill sound and a fair amount of the surface noise, Guild has done just enough cleaning up of these old Victors to make the sound uniform and bearable. Beyond that, it took me a while to figure out what Peter Reynolds did. I downloaded original 78-rpm copies of the Gagliarda  and the Bizet Farandole and tried to make them sound like they do on this Guild release.

Rakoczy MarchWhat I discovered is that Reynolds did something that I’m sure a few Toscanini fans will consider heresy, and that was to roll back the treble by a few decibels. Then he added a judicious amount of reverb—but NOT echo—to allow the orchestra to resonate in at least some kind of acoustic space. If you think this is heresy, please remember that way back when people bought these original discs and played them on their Victrolas, the sound went out into their living rooms—some of which were fairly large—and thus took on the natural reverb of the room. That was how acoustic phonographs worked. But once these same records were transferred to LP, or CD, the acoustic properties of the recordings were altered. A recording played on a turntable or a CD player does NOT resonate in your living room the same way an acoustic disc played on a wind-up phonograph does, because your LP or CD players do not have a diaphragm with which to make the recorded sound resonate.

I know this because I once owned a Victrola, and playing both vocal and orchestral discs on it produced an entirely different sound than when I played them on my phonograph, even when equipped with a 78-rpm stylus.

The end result is, in most of these recordings, a somewhat more spacious, realistic sound that makes these Toscanini discs almost (but not quite) sound like some of the better acoustics that Victor made by Karl Muck and Leopold Stokowski, and that’s saying quite a bit. For once, you can actually hear the strings, brass and winds in some sort of proportion to one another, not like one congested sound alllinedupinarow. And that makes a big difference.

Mozart Symph 39 menuettoSimilarly, Reynolds did something with the 1926 Brunswick electrics that no one else seems to have done, and that is to play them on an electrical Victrola of the period and record the sound that way; and once again, the sound quality is considerable different. If you play these two Brunswick sides on an electrical turntable, the sound is actually quite muddy, which is the exact opposite of Toscanini’s sound aesthetics. Here, they come across with a brighter quality than ever before.

There is a myth that has circulated about the La Scala acoustics, that Toscanini insisted on so many takes that he almost drove Victor Records bankrupt, but this is really not true. Here is an actual list of all the acoustics he made for the company with the number of takes for each and which take was issued:

Gagliarda: 2 tks, 2nd one issued
Mozart: Symph 39, III – 4 tks, 4th one issued
Mozart: Symph 39, IV – 3 tks, 3rd one issued
Pizzetti: Pisanella – 2 tks, 2nd one issued
Donizetti: Don Pasquale Ov, pt 1 – 6 tks on 12/21/1920 & 2 each on 3/8 & 3/12/1921, none issued; 3 tks on 3/29/1921, 3rd one issued
Donizetti: Don Pasquale Ov, pt 2 – 7 tks on 12/21/1920, 3/8 & 3/12/1921, none issued; 2 tks on 3/29/1921, 2nd one issued
Berlioz: Rakokzy March – 3 tks each on 12/2 & 12/24/1920, 6th one issued
Bizet: Aragonaise – 4 tks on 12/22/1920, 2 on 3/31/1921, 6th one issued
Beethoven 5th finale, pt 1 – 3 tks on 12/24/1920, 1st one issued
Beethoven 5th finale, pt 2 – 3 tks on 12/24/1920, 3rd one issued
Star-Spangled Banner – 1 tk on 12/24/1920, destroyed
Mendelssohn: MND Scherzo – 3 tks on 3/9/1921, 3rd one issued
Mendelssohn: MND Wedding March – 2 tks each on 3/9 & 3/11/1921, 4th one issued
Verdi: La Traviata, Act 1 Prelude – 7 tks on 3/9, 11 & 31/1921, none issued
Wolf-Ferrari: Secret of Susanna Ov – 3 tks on 3/10/1921, 3rd one issued
Bizet: Farandole – 1 tk on 3/11/1921, issued
Massenet: Fête Bohème – 3 tks on 3/31/1921, 2nd one issued

Don PasqualeAs you can see, the only recording which Toscanini spent an inordinate amount of time on was that of Donizetti’s Don Pasquale overture, in two parts. This took a combined 18 takes, recorded over three different sessions, before he was satisfied enough to approve takes for release. He also spent a lot of time on the unissued Act I Prelude to Verdi’s La Traviata, seven takes with none of them approved. Otherwise, he only made three to four takes, which was scarcely unusual for those days; and, as a matter of fact, Stokowski made even MORE takes of more records before approving them for release than Toscanini did.

Wolf-Ferrari Secret of SuzannaNow that we can hear these recordings with their proper balance and amplitude of sound, the aural impact of the performances is considerably different. The careful balance between sections that Toscanini worked out is now much easier to hear, and without the harsh grating sound of yore, the performances are much easier to appreciate. This is particularly true of the last movement of the Beethoven Fifth Symphony, which always struck me an unnaturally harsh in previous releases, but even the opening of the Don Pasquale overture, which I always thought sounded like one big glob of sound, is now much easier to take.

Thus I recommend this CD, particularly to Toscanini fans, as a replacement for whatever incarnation is currently in your collection. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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