Toscanini Conducts Beethoven Symphonies [The 1939 Cycle]

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Beethoven
Symphony No.1 in C, Op.21
Symphony No.2 in D, Op.36
Symphony No.3 in E flat, Op.55 (Eroica)
Symphony No.4 in B flat, Op.60
Symphony No.5 in C minor, Op.67
Symphony No.6 in F, Op.68 (Pastoral)
Symphony No.7 in A, Op.92
Symphony No.8 in F, Op.93
Symphony No.9 in D minor, Op.125 (Choral)

Jarmila Novotna (soprano)
Kerstin Thorborg (mezzo-soprano)
Jan Peerce (tenor)
Nicola Moscona (bass)

Westminster Choir

NBC Symphony Orchestra
Arturo Toscanini

Recorded 28 October to 2 December 1939 in Studio 8H and Carnegie Hall, New York


Reviewed by: Rob Pennock

Reviewed: September 2007
CD No: MUSIC & ARTS
CD 1203 (5 CDs)
Duration: 6 hours 12 minutes

This Beethoven cycle has appeared on several labels, the most notable of which have been Lys and Naxos. Both these re-issues have since been deleted, so there was a gap waiting to be filled.

This 5-discs-for-the-price-of-4 Music & Arts version, with copious notes and using new source material, boasts (according to the blurb) “vastly superior” sound to previous transfers by utilising the “revolutionary harmonic balancing process”. The sound on these discs is very good, with excellent definition, detail and clearly audible brass (often an issue with early recordings). Inevitably there is occasional distortion, but background hiss is low without, unusually, any deadening of the sound. Overall balance is not too forward and the transfer level is high for a historical issue. However, the sound is slightly bass-light. Nevertheless, these are the best transfers to date by some distance and for all serious collectors will be an essential purchase.

Most know Toscanini’s Beethoven from the RCA 1949-51 cycle, but there are numerous other examples of his Beethoven around, which are referred to below. All reveal the maestro’s ever-changing relationship with this greatest of composers.

Here, the symphonies are not laid out in numerical order, but I listened to them as such. In the first two symphonies, the slow introductions are broad, with singing tone, exact yet resonant sforzando chords and occasional slurs and portamento. In the first movements proper there are numerous slight tempo changes – including a very slight slowing for the second subject – holding on to chords and rubato. Toscanini is subtler than Fürtwängler, but there is the same expressive license. The mundane facelessness of ‘modern’ Beethoven conducting is entirely absent. Slow movements eschew sentimentality, but there is beautiful Italianate phrasing and lyricism. As you would expect, the scherzos are fleet, with prowling bass lines, rhythmic power and lightness and wit. The finales are miracles of instrumental balancing, impish phrasing and sustained tension and power. They compel you to sit forward, listen and learn. Commentators often see these symphonies as backward-looking; Toscanini will have none of it, and he uses the full resources of the symphony orchestra. Time and again the sheer wit and humanity reminded me of Rossini.

All of the qualities Toscanini brings to the first two symphonies are to be heard throughout the cycle. Of the ‘Eroica’ little need be said; for many it is the greatest performance of this work on disc. The 1945 VJ Day performance (also Music & Arts) is even more powerful, even more ‘felt’, but the difference is marginal. Tempos are flexible, the phrasing and rhythm supple, but here the forte chords are intimidating, jarring – sometimes they sound like bullet-shots – in their precision and power. The tension and drive are mesmeric, the vision completely uncompromising. Exactly the same can be said of the Fourth, but here the finale is particularly notable. At speed the strings and woodwind weave ever-changing webs of sound – supercharged Rossini!

As with most pre-‘authentic’ performances, the Fifth suffers from the omission of the last movement repeat – one of the great moments in music – but the power and command are again absolute. As with the ‘Eroica’, when Beethoven is in full heroic flood, Toscanini combines grace and lyricism with biting sforzandos, blazing brass and crashing timpani. In effect, Toscanini anticipates the authentic movement by many years. Nevertheless, for all the glory of this version, the 1945 VE Day (Music & Arts, again) performance surpasses it: unlike many of his contemporaries, Toscanini despised Fascism and never made the naïve mistake of thinking that politics and music can be completely separated; the blazing, elemental joy that he felt at the defeat of Hitler and his savages is viscerally, almost frighteningly, conveyed in every bar.

Most people know the ‘Pastoral’ from the celebrated 1937 BBC Symphony Orchestra performance. With the NBCSO the first-movement repeat is observed and the tempo is marginally slower. In the late ‘thirties the BBC was a great orchestra and the woodwinds do have more character than their US counterparts, the strings more delicacy. But as to whether it is a better performance, I am not sure. The tutti playing of the NBC is magnificent and they sing beautifully in the last movement. Like Erich Kleiber, Toscanini brooks no sentimentality. He sees the work for what it is: a great sonata-form structure, not an extended piece of mood music.

Regrettably, in the Seventh Symphony the first-movement repeat is ignored. But the rest is music-making on an exalted plain. The introduction’s clipped, terse, opening chord is answered by arioso woodwind phrasing and the main part of the movement is taken at a steady pace. Toscanini, with Carlos Kleiber, was this symphony’s greatest interpreter and both have that uncanny ability to make the music move inexorably forward, to bring tension and seething expectation to every phrase, without resorting to anything so crude as pure speed. Much the same can be said of every movement. The sheer concentration and power are unforgettable.

To say that the Eighth is lacking in charm would be an understatement. Clearly Toscanini saw it as a ‘big’ work, and he was right. As with the Seventh, the whole work seethes, but as usual the first-movement’s second subject brings a slight relaxation of tempo. The strings and woodwind sing operatically, and I have no doubt that this is the finest account of the movement on disc. The second movement could be Ponchielli’s ‘Dance of the Hours’, such is Toscanini’s insouciant command of rhythm and phrasing, while the Minuet and Trio becomes a full-blown scherzo with emphatic brass interpolations and – as always – beautifully undulating string phrasing. Of the finale little can be said, other than it is stern, almost violent, with a graciously moulded second subject. Definitely not a performance for the faint-hearted!

And so to arguably the greatest of all symphonies, the Ninth. Toscanini (conducting in Carnegie Hall) is totally uncompromising at speed in the first movement. The self-indulgent, pseudo-spirituality of the likes of Furtwängler is a million miles away. Yet Toscanini could do it better, as the 1938 NBCSO and the almost insane 1941 Buenos Aires performances (both Music & Arts!) demonstrate. In these, the second subject has an operatic quality and the structural grasp is even greater. In all three, the scherzos are demonic in their power, but in Buenos Aires the approach is even more dangerously volatile and the timpanist sounds as though he is on Speed! In the present recording, the slow movement is not Adagio – but cantabile it most certainly is. There is passion in the second subject and the maestro can be heard singing along. Until the great plunge into the minor after the second fortissimo outburst, the emotional current is almost innocent in its expression, but in both 1938 and 1941 the atmosphere is more serene. In all three performances, the last movement has – to put it mildly – blazing conviction, yet in Buenos Aires, at a slightly slower tempo, Toscanini seems to shake the Gates of Heaven. However the sound is far from ideal in 1941, and in 1938 there is serious crumbling and distortion in the last movement. So the 1939 version is the third greatest performance of the work available. Klemperer (Testament) in 1958, and Szell (BBC Legends) in 1969 offer entirely different conceptions which I wouldn’t want to be without, but come the ‘desert island’ it would have to be Toscanini.

As a bonus there are performances of four overtures: the three known as ‘Leonore’ and the one to “Egmont”, which are, by some distance, the best available.

So, the greatest Beethoven Symphony cycle around!

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