Feature Review – Toscanini at The Queen’s Hall: The June 1935 BBC Symphony concerts [West Hill Radio Archives]

Written by: Rob Pennock

Music by Beethoven, Brahms, Cherubini, Debussy, Elgar, Geminiani, Mendelssohn, Mozart, Rossini and Wagner

BBC Symphony Orchestra

Arturo Toscanini

Concerts given on 3, 5, 12 & 14 June 1935 in The Queen’s Hall, London


4 hours 3 minutes

Arturo Toscanini

When Arturo Toscanini was invited to conduct the then relatively new BBC Symphony Orchestra he was rightly hailed as the world’s greatest conductor. His fee was huge (in today’s money, almost £30,000 per concert) and he insisted on more than double the standard rehearsal time. Regrettably Toscanini didn’t give his permission for the BBC concerts (which were broadcast) to be recorded, but Fred Gaisberg of HMV went ahead without the conductor knowing, using multiple recording machines with an overlap. When he was told about the recordings, Toscanini did express some interest in the results. Unfortunately he later changed his mind and refused to even listen to the test pressings, and as his later New York Philharmonic, BBCSO and NBCSO studio recordings became famous, the live ones were almost forgotten. This West Hill Radio Archives re-mastering (made by Gene Gaudette in 2012) is the first complete set on compact disc, and the Geminiani Concerto Grosso has never been issued. There were two pairs of concerts, and some of the works were changed in the second of each pair.

The sound captured in The Queen’s Hall (destroyed by bombing during World War Two) is excellent. Pitch stability is – with a few glaring exceptions – exemplary, so one might assume that correction software has been used, but the Beethoven Seventh, Debussy La mer and Elgar Enigma Variations first appeared on HMV Treasury LPs in 1986 and 1987, with virtually no wow and flutter, so perhaps there was little need for digital correction. There is almost no background distraction, and since noise-reduction software is now far more sophisticated, this has not deadened the sound. Definition is very good, but in tuttis, the brass can occasionally be indistinct; however the woodwind is very well – if rather forwardly – captured, and the string tone is exceptionally full. Nevertheless – and this is a highly subjective area – ambient mastering (which expands the image) might have been beneficial. What you certainly get is a far more vivid picture of the lustrous, singing clarity, and huge dynamic range Toscanini drew from orchestras, than that found on virtually any of his RCA recordings, and these are – by some distance – the finest transfers to-date.

Arturo Toscanini

The presentation does leave something to be desired, however, in that CD4 (playing twelve minutes less than indicated) is annotated as containing Rossini’s Semiramide Overture, when it is in fact on CD3; and with regard to applause, it is included on some of the works, and not on others, and there is an unacceptable, jarring cut-off after a snatch of it at the end of Beethoven 7. The masters (assuming they were used, the booklet doesn’t say) may be at fault here, and there is a microsecond of post-echo at the end of the Beethoven on the Treasury transfer. On the plus-side, the comprehensive notes are taken from Christopher Dyment’s book, Toscanini in Britain.

With regard to the music-making, it is worth bearing in mind that prior to the creation of the BBCSO in 1930, the standard of orchestral playing that prevailed in the UK was lamentably low, and this may have been the reason that Toscanini had never conducted a British orchestra before. Under Dr Adrian Boult’s tutelage (Boult’s knighthood arrived in 1937), the orchestra was, by 1935, a world-class ensemble, and far superior to its modern-day counterpart. The woodwinds had individuality, the brass power and marvellously rounded tone, and the strings displayed refined lustre: their combined passion, commitment, and sheer panache are a joy to hear. Being live, there are some fluffs and lapses, but nothing of any consequence.

For many, Toscanini remains the greatest of conductors, and it is not difficult to hear why when listening to these performances. CD1 opens with Cherubini’s unjustly neglected Anacreon Overture, where the opening chords have weight, clarity and immense authority, followed by singing lyricism from the woodwinds. Balancing is exemplary, and in the first ff outburst there is precision and no flabbiness to the sound. The coda finds the BBCSO playing out-of-its-skin, as every line and chord is delineated, the tension and power ratcheted up.

Arturo Toscanini

The following work, Brahms’s Fourth Symphony, has a quite extraordinary fluidity of motion, where the same tempo is rarely maintained for more than a few bars, and within this ebb and flow there is generous and entirely natural and convincing rubato. Brahms enjoyed using multiple themes in the first movements of his symphonies and Toscanini’s attention to detail ensures that they are all audible, and it is a pity that the mono recording does not pick up the antiphonal violins’ (Toscanini always used this arrangement) counter-statement of the opening phrase in bars sixteen to nineteen. In lesser hands such laissez-faire treatment of the score might sound self-indulgent, but the underlying pulse and mesmeric sense of control and power are utterly compelling. At the start of the slow movement, two horns play an elegiac two-bar fanfare, and because narrow-bore horns were the norm at the time, the sound is less romantic than you get today. These bars are faster than the ensuing woodwind statement of the first subject, whose second section is then taken at the opening tempo, over marvellously varied and expressive pizzicato strings. The movement then flows forward (it is marked Andante moderato, not Adagio) with string phrasing that wouldn’t be out-of-place in Verdi’s Otello, and absolutely no sentimentality. Unsurprisingly the scherzo receives a powerhouse performance, with a marked relaxation of tempo for the brief second subject (there is no trio) and rather more string sforzandos than are marked in the first edition of the score! In the great finale (based on a passacaglia), Toscanini combines sweeping, intense strings, baleful woodwind and brass, and crashing timpani, with drive and attack. The sense of power and concentration is absolute, and the BBCSO sounds almost possessed.

There are five pieces of Wagner. When Toscanini conducted Parsifal at Bayreuth in 1931 he set an unchallenged record for the work, clocking in at four hours, forty eight minutes, twenty minutes slower than even Karl Muck and Hans Knappertsbusch. In the BBC performance the Act One Prelude is exceptionally long-breathed. The phrasing and colouring are very dark, and the strings play with frightening intensity. In the first brass and timpani fanfares, it sounds as though Toscanini was using – as he preferred in Wagner – an expanded brass section. He then maintains virtually the same tempo as each of the leitmotifs are presented, only increasing the tempo for the ‘Good Friday Music’, and the way the strings sing, is an object lesson in legato phrasing, and profoundly moving. ‘Siegfried’s Death and Funeral March’ from the last Act of Götterdämmerung are very expansive. From the first bar to the last there is total darkness, with the bass-heavy funereal tread given immense weight and projection. The glorious swell of string sound as Brünnhilde’s ‘Awakening’ motif appears has unparalleled intensity and grandeur. As the ‘Funeral March’ approaches its first massive fff outburst, the principal trumpet soars, and despite the inevitably, severely compromised dynamic range, the crescendo knocks you back in your seat, so it must have been shattering in the hall. There is also the Faust Overture, a work entirely undeserving of the care and attention so obviously lavished on it by the performers.

Which brings us to Elgar’s Enigma Variations and a performance that stands with Barbirolli’s Hallé version as the very finest. The opening ‘Theme’ is beautifully moulded, the agitated chromatic semiquavers that characterise Hew David Steuart-Powell are waspish, the attack in Variation IV is almost violent, as is ‘Troyte’, replete with crashing timpani (Fred Gaisberg later recounted that the recording engineer almost had a heart-attack when the timpanist launched a thunderous assault on his instruments). ‘Nimrod’ is swift, but via a long rallentando, builds to a massive climax, and the cello-led Variation XII is beautifully sung. Whichever Variation you listen to, there is absolute mastery of line and texture, and an acute emotional response, which culminates in an exceptionally powerful account of the ‘Finale’, in which the brass run-riot.

The four movements of Geminiani’s Concerto Grosso in G minor (Opus 3/2) are elegantly done, but the lack of repeats severely diminishes the work. If his various recordings of the most-famous overtures are anything to go by, Toscanini was by some distance the greatest of Rossini conductors, and the Semiramide Overture is well-nigh perfect. The piano opening gives way to three very forceful chords, and then the brass solemnly declare the first theme. In Toscanini’s hands this section is relaxed, but there is underlying tension, which is heightened in the passage where pizzicato strings accompany the woodwinds’ version of the theme by the conductor’s scrupulous attention to weight, emphasis and tonal and dynamic shading. When the main Allegro arrives, the spring and bounce are a joy, with the upper strings giving a little portamento leap at the end of each phrase. From then on the Overture becomes a coiled spring, with massive crescendos and jarring chords and attack. The only performance to come anywhere near equalling it is Toscanini’s own with the New York Philharmonic, and even that doesn’t have quite the same élan.

Arturo Toscanini (second left) with (left to right) Bruno Walter, Erich Kleiber, Otto Klemperer and Wilhelm Furtwängler

We then have a Toscanini speciality, Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. Unfortunately there are no exposition repeats in the outer movements, but everything else is impeccably judged. The sense of tension and power-in-reserve in the slow introduction is palpable, the fortissimo chords intimidating. The main Vivace is propelled forward at a steady tempo, with incisive sforzandos, brilliantly characterful woodwind, and delightful string slides. The Allegretto moves purposefully forward with singing strings and a sense of profound melancholy. By antiseptic, boring modern standards, the scherzo might seem quite relaxed, but, as in the first movement, Toscanini’s command of rhythm and tension is absolute, and he was one of the first conductors to the play the trio in tempo. The rhythmic power, biting, dead-weight attack at a true Allegro con brio in the finale is exceptional, and to hear the string-players really dig in is exhilarating and profoundly moving.

Debussy’s La mer (Three Symphonic Sketches) brings another stunning performance, with every line clearly drawn, without any of the composer’s finely wrought atmosphere being lost. There is a sense of quiet growth and evolution in each of the three movements with completely natural changes of tempo. You also get passages where the volume level shrinks to a whisper, and it is to the original recording-engineer’s credit that these passages were captured at all. The significance to Toscanini’s conception of the music is that he understood what ‘symphonic’ means. Vary the dynamics, occasionally linger, and mould the line, by-all-means, but never lose sight of structure, and forward momentum. The young Benjamin Britten was completely bowled over by the Debussy – which was pretty revolutionary fare in London at the time – and three-quarters of a century on, the performance has not lost none of its authority.

Toscanini’s Salzburg Festival performance of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte is pretty dire, but his ‘Haffner’ Symphony is much better, Mozart seen though the eyes of Beethoven, which is no bad thing as it brings strength and purpose to the music. From the same concert there is the ‘Nocturne’ and ‘Scherzo’ from Mendelssohn’s score for A Midsummer Night’s Dream, neither of which are entirely satisfactory, the former being slightly too fast and the latter lacking in magic and aurally confused in the opening measures, almost as if taken apart and overlaid incorrectly. For some reason, Beethoven’s Overture to Die Geschöpfe des Prometheus from June 1939 (which was not issued at the time) is also included.

In his booklet note Christopher Dyment suggests that Brahms’s Fourth Symphony is an ideal example of Toscanini’s style in the mid-1930s, before old-age and other factors influenced his conducting. I don’t think this is entirely true. It is rather an extreme example, and the other works, which have all of the qualities of the Brahms, but greater control of tempo, are more representative, and more clearly suggest the ways in which his art would develop. Listening to the 1937 Salzburg Festival Falstaff (Pristine Audio) and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (Andante), you hear the same attention to detail, acute emotional response, and singing lines that make Enigma Variations and La mer so memorable. Until he took up the reins at the New York Philharmonic, Toscanini was primarily a conductor of opera, and would have known that you simply couldn’t expect singers to negotiate the tempo changes found in the Brahms – so maybe he was just enjoying himself in a big romantic score! When he returned to La Scala in 1946 he gave a performance of Beethoven’s First Symphony (APR) that seems like a throwback to the 1935 Seventh; the blazing 1943 Brahms First Symphony with the NBCSO (Music & Arts) has a finale that harks back to the licence of the 1935 Fourth; the celebrated 1939 Eroica (Music & Arts) has a very wayward first movement; and the 1940 Enescu First Romanian Rhapsody (Pristine) is all-over-the-place. So it is very difficult to isolate a particular performance as ‘representative’ at any point in the conductor’s career. Taken simply as performances, these featuring the BBC Symphony Orchestra in 1935 belong in the Pantheon of great recordings. It has been a privilege to listen them. The four CDs sell for the price of three.

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