Verdi Aida PACO197

Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901)
Aida – opera in four acts (1871)
Herva Nelli (soprano) – Aida; Eva Gustavson (mezzo) – Amneris; Richard Tucker (tenor) – Radames; Giuseppe Valdengo (baritone) – Amonasro; Norman Scott (bass) – Ramfis; Dennis Harbour (bass) – King of Egypt; Teresa Stich-Randall (soprano) – Priestess; Virginio Assandri (tenor) – Un messaggero
Robert Shaw Chorale
NBC Symphony Orchestra/Arturo Toscanini
rec. live radio broadcasts of two concert performances on 26 March (Acts 1 & 2) and 2 April (Acts 3 & 4) 1949
No libretto
Ambient Stereo XR Remastering
Reviewed as 24-bit FLAC download

In my 2019 survey of major Aida recordings I remarked that “[t]he thin mono sound here of this TV-radio simulcast concert performance is slightly edgy but presents no real barrier to enjoyment.” Nonetheless, I concluded thus: “Sonic limitations, the lack of a star-quality Aida and comparative weaknesses in other singers prevent this from being a front-runner” but again hedged my bets by observing that “there is a special value in hearing the greatest Verdi conductor pace this opera perfectly.”

“You immediately notice the care and precision with which Toscanini shapes phrases and secures the right sonorities and balances in the orchestra. Nothing drags, nor does it sound rushed. He was a stickler for correct Italian pronunciation and his cast all enunciate and project the text cleanly. With the exception of Tucker – and arguably Valdengo – there are no major voices in the cast but they were Toscanini regulars, coached and drilled by him to his exacting standards, making a coherent ensemble. A youthful Tucker himself is in slender, clarion voice, singing lyrically with refinement and without exaggeration – although that is equally true of all his co-singers; there’s not a wobbler in sight, down to the brief interjection from a neat-voiced Messenger. Valdengo, who had already triumphed as Iago and would do likewise under Toscanini as Falstaff the following year, here sings a virile, intense Amonasro. Herva Nelli lacks something of the dark, burnished sound an Aida ideally requires, sounding half a size too small but she sings neatly, accurately and with feeling, even if her voice lacks tonal variety. The weakest link here is the anonymous and rather under-powered Amneris from Eva Gustavson; she isn’t bad but makes a limited impact in a gift of a role for a real scenery-chewing mezzo. Considering the limited acoustic, the chorus on and offstage are atmospherically recorded and the cameo from “Stitch” as the Priestess is a decided success.”

Revisiting the recording in its new, sonically enhanced guise, I stand by that verdict regarding the singers but must concede that yet another Pristine remastering triumph does much to counteract my reservations about the sound. In his note, Andrew Rose declares “my aim is to offer a somewhat idealised sound to this recording – a sense of dimensional air around the performers in the absence of true stereo, a correctional equalisation to overcome the shortcomings of 1940s recording equipment.” He succeeds admirably. Only the faintest hiss remains and everything sounds more vivid and distinct.

It is also true that I am generally even more impressed by the overall standard of singing this time around. It is of course partly the effect of Pristine’s remastering enabling me to hear something closer to the live concert performance even in the deadened acoustic of the notorious Studio 8H but the more time goes by the more I appreciate the virtues of singers long gone.  There is still no way either Nelli or Gustavson rivals the greatest exponents of the roles of Aida and Amneris respectively, but neither are they deficient in conveying the beauty of the music or the drama of the events. In addition to the enhanced presence of their voices, there is now also so much more immediacy and bite in the orchestral accompaniments as a result of the bringing forward of individual lines in this Ambient Stereo renewal. Despite the lack of really firm centre to her voice at times, new things I notice about Nelli’s Aida are the palpable desperation with which she invests her response to the succession of plights and conflicts to which she is subjected and her frequent recourse to lower register for emphasis. We may newly appreciate the firm, vibrant focus of Valdengo’s baritone, too. The remastering has also brought the chorus into greater focus; the “Noi t’invochiam” passage towards the end of Act One, with Stich-Randall making an ethereal priestess, is especially effective.

The bold CD cover artwork is the result of Andrew Rose’s experimentation with the DALL-E website, to which he proposed the title “Arturo Toscanini conducting Aida in the style of Dali”.

If you do not already possess this famous recording, Pristine offers the best sound yet to help you appreciate the drama provided by Toscanini’s painstakingly drilled ensemble of first-rate artists.

Ralph Moore

Availability: Pristine Classical