Berlioz: Romeo/Toscanini etc

Review by: Jed Distler

Artistic Quality: 10

Sound Quality: 4

Collectors who can’t locate RCA’s reissue of Toscanini’s justly fabled Berlioz Roméo et Juliette with the NBC Symphony (the two-part broadcast of February 9 & 16, 1947) naturally will wonder about Guild’s alternative edition. The latter transfer essentially stems from tapes made by Richard Gardner in the 1950s from original “inside source” broadcast lacquers. Unlike RCA, Guild retains the original broadcast announcements and includes the taut, thrilling performance of Scene Seven from The Damnation of Faust that “filled out” the February 16th concert (with Mack Harrell in top form as Mephistopheles). When Toscanini auditioned Roméo et Juliette for possible release, he asked that the Queen Mab Scherzo be replaced with his commericial 1951 recording, a request RCA granted. Guild restores the 1947 broadcast Queen Mab. In addition, Guild offers nearly two hours’ worth of rehearsal material where Toscanini painstakingly works out balancing of chords, dynamics, and articulation with the utmost specificity, professionalism, and focus. And those expecting the Maestro to heap baton-breaking abuse upon his musicians will be surprised to hear the conductor’s frequent words of courtesy and concern.

Producer Richard Caniell’s annotations claim the Gardner tapes to sound better, with orchestral voices “more natural in timbre” and a “thrilling sheen” from the strings “not hearable” from the RCA commercial set. He goes on to mention “certain intangibles” lost in the RCA reissue that contribute to the “fullness and definition of the strings in the Love Music” as heard here. To my ears, however, these claims describe RCA’s digital restorations, which reveal a clearer, more defined mid-range and a real bottom to the orchestral image. The basic sound, to be sure, is dry and dynamically constricted, with high string writing that turns strident at loud moments. If the latter bothers you, just turn down the treble, and you’ll approximate Guild’s patina without Guild’s tape hiss. Whichever CD edition you choose, Toscanini’s energetic, disciplined, and lyrically tensile leadership matches the music’s passion, vitality, and color. His outstanding singers bring impressive beauty and roundness of tone to their solo and ensemble work, with relaxed authority and superb diction to match. Guild’s completeness factor and generous rehearsal material will entice Toscanini buffs, but keep the immediacy and superior ambience of RCA’s transfer in mind.

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Recording Details:

Reference Recording: Roméo et Juliette: Muti (EMI), Damnation of Faust: Ozawa (DG)

HECTOR BERLIOZ - Roméo et Juliette; Damnation of Faust Scene VII

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