Arturo Toscanini’s Penultimate Concert – In Stereo

0 of 5 stars

The Barber of Seville – Overture
Symphony No.6 in B minor, Op.74 (Pathétique)

NBC Symphony Orchestra
Arturo Toscanini

Recorded on 21 March 1954 in Carnegie Hall, New York

Reviewed by: Rob Pennock

Reviewed: March 2007
Duration: 58 minutes

Of all the great conductors, Arturo Toscanini has had more ill-informed nonsense written about him than any other. Recent reservations about his style have concentrated on two main areas – excessive force, rigidity and speed and that as he got older, these qualities became more pronounced. There are further issues with regard to the sound of many of the recordings, which could, when recorded in the notorious NBC Studio 8H, be harsh, close and constricted. On top of this, some disapprove of his dictatorial style and occasional temper outbursts.

With regard to the sound, many are used to the dreadful RCA 1970s’ “Toscanini Edition” LPs, or substandard transfers to CDs of live concerts. However it is easy to forget that all recordings from the late 1920s to the early 1950s – whether from 78s, acetates or tape – are very low-fi. Nevertheless the stunning 1942-43 NBCSO Brahms symphony cycle (which is both interpretatively and orchestrally superior to the 1952 Philharmonia Orchestra set on Testament) and the viscerally powerful, blazing 1942 Buenos Aires Beethoven 9 (both on Music & Arts) are in very bad sound: as said, the Studio 8H recordings are pretty gruesome and many of the studio recordings were aggressive and one-dimensional. Such sound has influenced many listeners’ perceptions of the actual music-making and made objective assessment difficult. However those, like myself, who have heard Dell’Arte, Toscanini Family, Toscanini Society, or early RCA LM LPs, know that the ‘Toscanini Sound’ was in fact defined, weighty and silken.

Naxos’s re-mastering of the great 1939 Beethoven symphony cycle, and Testament’s of the afore-mentioned Brahms series, showed those – who were prepared to listen – that the conductor’s style was far more flexible and fluid than perceived and that tempos were never extreme. With regard to the supposed later speeding up, comparative timings in no way support this. On this present release – recorded in stereo and issued for the first time – both works are slower than earlier versions. There is some truth in the argument that from the late 1940s onwards, the conductor’s rhythmic control could become too strict and tempos too metronomic. As many musicians have grown older, aspects of their style will, sometimes, become too dominant. But amongst Toscanini’s numerous live performances, there are few duds and, to name but three – Verdi’s “Falstaff”, Saint-Saëns’s Third Symphony and Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet –, are music-making on an exalted level.

To this list can now be added the works on this disc. As with Toscanini’s last concert (Music & Arts CD-3008) this was recorded in stereo and what a revelation it is. There are several problems, though: the sound is too close, the dynamic range limited, there is some wow and flutter, the bass is boomy, and there are minor overloading and small breaks in the right-hand channel signal. But Aaron Z. Snyder has done a painstaking restoration job and writes about this in the booklet. What you hear is glowing, precise, string tone; scintillating, but marvellously integrated, woodwinds; and full, but incisive, brass and powerful timpani. All of which allows us to hear Toscanini’s art in a different light.

Rossini’s overture is a masterclass in the art of balance, rubato, shading, dynamic control, tempo variation and cumulative power and tension, at a relaxed tempo. Toscanini’s view of the ‘Pathétique’ is best known from the live 1942 and 1938 performances issued on Naxos (now deleted) of which the earlier is the only performance I would rank with Mravinsky’s live 1983 version (Erato – deleted). This 1954 account is different, but equally compelling. Most obviously it is slower and the orchestral playing is not quite as incisive. But there is the same refusal to wallow in sentimentality and, as with the Rossini, Toscanini’s command of his orchestra, and every aspect of the conductor’s art, is absolute. Crucially, at the heart of the performance, there is a sense of elegiac resignation, which is profoundly moving.

Like Mravinsky, Toscanini’s opening Adagio is not comatose; the darkness is conveyed through colouring and subtle changes of phrasing and tempo. The opening chord of the Allegro is a cannon-shot and the ensuing tempo swift, but not hectic. All of the tempo changes are effortlessly integrated into the overall structure, nothing is allowed to stand in the way of this being the first movement of a great symphony. This does not stop the climax of the development being absolutely shattering, with crashing timpani and gloriously expressive strings. Of the second movement waltz, little can be said: it is leisurely with a graciousness of phrasing and command of rhythm and dynamics that is little short of miraculous. There is no sense of whimsy, simply effortless invention tinged with sadness.

In 1938 the third movement was a tour de force of command and frightening power, with staggering orchestral playing. Sixteen years later everything is more relaxed, but the sense of propulsion, power and command is still vivid. Here especially, you notice the clarity of the massed orchestral chords, there is absolutely no sense of self-indulgent flabbiness anywhere and every strand of the texture is clearly audible. In the slow finale, a movement that has had so much spurious sentimentality forced on it, Toscanini’s tempo is perfectly judged, so as to allow the ‘lamentoso’ element to be felt and to hold the structure together. The conductor’s subtlety and control can be heard in the glorious second subject. For most it is one long crescendo leading to the bleak ff chords, but here each statement of the theme brings a rise and fall in the dynamics, the tempo ebbs and flows imperceptibly – rubato at its finest – it is sung. The final bars are desolate, intensity gives way to spare, hollow bass pizzicatos.

This is a very important release. In the first paragraph I mentioned the way in which some have criticised Toscanini for his dictatorial style and temper. In a world that is bereft of great conductors, after the death of Carlos Kleiber, it is very easy to forget that there were maestros who made Toscanini seem like a lamb and that even the more benign ones could explode. Orchestral musicians took this for granted, because the results justified the means. But with Toscanini, if you read the reminiscences of the NBCSO players, none of them gave a damn; they all held him in such respect and affection: the twentieth-century’s greatest conductor.

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