I grew up listening to recordings of Toscanini performances on LP. Mostly, I played a boxed set of Wagner orchestral excerpts so often that the LPs were practically playing both sides at once. I also spent a lot of time listening to the 1947 Toscanini recording of Otello with Ramon Vinay, Herva Nelli and Giuseppe Valdengo. They were great recordings, but I now realize that they lacked punch. Perhaps the engineering and analog vinyl format submerged the immediacy of the actual performances.
That could be why I find a YouTube audio of Un Ballo in Maschera to be so extraordinary and revelatory. It’s a 1954 radio broadcast of Ballo with the NBC Orchestra, Herva Nelli, Jan Peerce, Robert Merrill, Claramae Turner, and Virginia Haskins. (Note that the same broadcast is available on CD on several labels; I have not had a chance to listen to these recordings.)
I could spend time writing about the soloists – Jan Peerce especially, who brings exceptional grace and clarity to the role of Riccardo – but the real revelations come from having such a clear aural record of what Toscanini was doing. That is probably due to the performing circumstances, in which the soloists seem to have been positioned well before the orchestra to get closer to the microphones, and the orchestra’s size seems to have been reduced somewhat.
You hear everything, and what you do hear is an extraordinary level of preparation and control from Toscanini. He was famous for being a dictatorial kind of conductor, and you hear all the good things that brought in this recording. The vocal ensembles especially are balanced, impeccably paced, and clean. So too with the choruses and orchestral work. It all has the clarity that you might expect from chamber music. Yet despite the level of control, the overall performance is quite moving. Why? It could be because we are hearing something that is quite close to what Verdi had in mind.
Have a listen. I haven’t heard anything quite like it anywhere else. Have you?