While baritone Tito Gobbi is known primarily for nineteenth century repertoire, his professional breakthrough came when he sang the Italian premiere of Wozzeck in Rome in 1942, in Italian. This CD preserves a performance of the opera from 1954, made with the Rome RAI Orchestra and Chorus. Conductor Nino Sanzogno obviously "gets" the opera -- his pacing and shadings make that clear -- and he draws searingly dramatic performances from the singers and the orchestra. The orchestra starts off shakily (the winds miss the first few notes of the opera), but once it gets on its feet, the playing is passionate and Italianate. What makes this performance stand out from many newer, more sophisticated and polished efforts is the bel canto approach of the singers, who don't treat this as "modern" music, but sing with the vocal style they would bring to verismo repertoire. (The plot certainly fits into the verismo tradition, and in this Italian-language version, it's easy to hear Wozzeck as a late verismo opera, but with far stronger music than that of the Italian operas from that period.) The fact that the language here is Italian makes the bel canto approach feel entirely appropriate. While honoring Berg's indications for Sprechstimme, Gobbi sings with the kind of fervor he would bring to Rigoletto. Likewise, Dorothy Dow, who also sang in the Italian premiere, makes us believe that this is what Floria Tosca would have sounded like, had she born into Marie's poverty. The supporting cast is almost entirely strong, particularly Hugues Cuénod as the Captain, Italo Tajo as the Doctor, and Mirto Picchi as the Drum Major. Petre Munteanu as Andres is the only weak link. The scene leading up to Marie's murder is one of the most menacing on disc. Overall, this is a riveting performance of the opera, one that offers genuinely fresh insights into the score. Unfortunately, there's a loud tape hiss throughout, a problem that's not nearly as noticeable on the Ponto release of the same performance.
The CD is filled out with a live 1945 performance of Berg's Violin Concerto, played by Joseph Szigeti. Dimitri Mitropoulos leads the NBC Symphony Orchestra in a straightforward performance that holds the work's emotional impact in check. The sound is bright, with little warmth, and the recording level is set very high, so it's necessary to turn down the volume below usual levels for it to be listenable.