Toscanini – the big day approaches

  • Saturday March 25th marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of the conductor who many consider to have been the 20th Century’s greatest. Arturo Toscanini, whose photographic memory allowed him to conduct even the most complex scores from memory, led the premieres of La bohème and Pagliacci and conducted Wagner’s Götterdämmerung and Parsifal when they were still ‘new’ music. He worked with the greatest singers of the day (principally at La Scala and New York’s Metropolitan Opera), and the finest orchestras too, most notably the New York Philharmonic Symphony and the NBC Symphony, the latter formed especially for him in 1937.
  • So much for the basic history. But what about the recordings? Early, acoustically recorded shellac discs with the La Scala Orchestra prove beyond doubt that here was a Maestro whose ability to imbue his players with a sense of musical purpose matched, if not exceeded, the abilities of his finest rivals.The next shellac phase included electrically recorded (ie recorded via a microphone) versions of Haydn, Beethoven and Wagner with the NYPSO that many consider to be benchmarks and similar repertoire with a less pristine but equally responsive BBC Symphony Orchestra.
  • The RCA NBC legacy stretches from 1937 to 1954, often involving, certainly if you include unpublished broadcasts, multiple versions of the same work which trace a marked curve of interpretative development. The repertoire represented includes the complete Beethoven and Brahms symphonies, as well as Haydn, Mozart, Wagner and Verdi (most notably Falstaff and Otello, both complete, and the Requiem).
  • What I want to do here is open a discussion about the contemporaneity of Toscanini as an interpreter, whether in the light of period performance practice and the way orchestral performance has evolved his burning, full-on approach to the classics serves as a timeless source of inspiration or a dinosaur with a rather hoarse voice.
  • Please quote specific examples, preferably all-time favourites …. and check out RCA’s forthcoming ‘Toscanini: the Essential Recordings’ set (20 cds) which Richard Osborne is reviewing for The Gramophone. Also in Gramophone I’m down to review recordings in the ‘Immortal Performances’ series, broadcast performances, including a rare account of Brahms’s German Requiem with Friedrich Schorr and Elizabeth Rethberg. That’s something I can’t wait to hear!
  • so, let’s get talking!
  • Best
  • Rob

18 thoughts on “Toscanini – the big day approaches

  1. Humphrey Burton

    Hello Rob!

    March 25th is also my birthday so I have always been aware of the maestro’s anniversaries

    Good luck with the 150th celebrations

    As ever Humphrey

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      1. Humphrey Burton

        Falstaff

        In the 1950s David Cairns and I listened to all six scenes of Verdi’s Falstaff comparing the new Karajan recording with the Toscanini ( i think a concert performance in New York).

        The score was 5-1 to Toscanini. I think only Act 3 scene 1 was judged in Karajan’s favour.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Rob,
    having just watched -last night- the ‘AMAZON PRIME TOSCANINI SPECIAL’
    (no, it was very good) – couldn’t agree more:
    during ‘Seigfried’ the camera only shows the conductor’s face (no shots of the orchestra) – you don’t get bored… anyway, more to follow.
    Great initiative… thank you.
    Tot Taylor
    tot@riflemaker.org

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    1. Must check that out Tot. Wagner was a particular love of AT, me too. In fact as a kid suffering from rheumatic fever and whose principal musical loves were Elvis Presley and Lonnie Donegan it was AT’s NBC recording of the Lohengrin 3rd act Prelude that flew me to the stars where other great music resides. And that’s where I’ve remained since … what? … 1961!!! Do you know his other Wagner recordings? I’d especially recommend the 1941 Götterdämmerung and Walküre scenes with soprano Helen Traubel and tenor Lauritz Melchior – the hottest Wagner on disc! Best wishes for the New Year.

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  3. Clive Restall

    Hi Rob. To revisit Toscanini’s recordings around this anniversary will be important and a great pleasure for your listeners.

    I believe that historical recordings fill some significant gaps. I enjoy period as well as modern interpretations, but nowadays we only seem to hear performances at these two extremes. Why can’t we have performances of Bach as heard by audiences in 1900 or 1940? And whereas we have period performances of Handel and Beethoven, we do not hear corresponding period performances of Elgar. We have to listen to old recordings of Sammons’ for this.

    And in 50 years time, our “modern” performances will be considered wrong and out of date, so surely they are no more relevant than existing historical performances?

    One plea, if I may. Please use vinyl rather than CD whenever possible. I don’t believe that transfers to CD are successful. I enjoy Busch Quartet recordings, and listened to your recent broadcast of a Razumovsky quartet. But the CD lacked the depth, mellowness and nostalgia of the old vinyl recordings.

    Best regards.

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    1. I get where you’re coming from Clive. In the case of the Busch the ultimate luxury would be shellac not vinyl, though it should be noted that the CDs are taken from vinyl pressings of the metal masters so that in all honesty the 78s would never have sounded as good. I still have some vinyl here. Sometimes the lps are better, sometimes not – it depends on the recording to hand. In general I dislike digital tinkering, which leaves a synthetic impression – a bit like the metallic aftertaste from some tinned food – and would rather listen to the sort of job that the best transfer engineers have done without intervention. Speaking generally Toscanini reemerges fairly well (at least via RCA and Testament), though some transfers are edgy. The Living Presence and Living Stereo transfers tend to be good, the DG ones too. But like you I am fussy! I’m expecting the ‘Immortal Performances’ Beethoven cycle (1939). I’ll report back.

      Have a Happy New Year
      Rob

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  4. Hi, Rob.

    I have several releases from the ‘Immortal Performances’ series: the engineer has extracted some much, in a very musical way, from some decidedly wretched source material, and the booklets are very informative. You’re in for a treat! I don’t have (yet) the 1939 Beethoven cycle, but I do have the 1930s New York Philharmonic Missa Solemnis and the Brahms German Requiem. The latter is an extraordinary performance- not at all speedy, but with amazing power and tremendous devotion. The choir and Schorr are good and Rethberg is divine. For me, it re-defined the work and is timeless, not the performance of a ‘hoarse dinosaur’. The Missa Solemnis is also very fine with amazing soloists, but I prefer slightly the 1940 performance. In either case, this is a work that must have meant a lot to Toscanini.

    A lot of his live performances can be found by trawling the internet. One fascinating rarity is a 1939 Beethoven 5 with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, available on the Internet Archive (link: https://archive.org/details/ToscaniniBeethoven5thBBC), very powerful, despite the sound. Nevertheless, it is listenable and, I think, comparable to the 2 NBC performances (studio and live) of 1939 and the live New York Philharmonic performances of 1931 and 1933 recently issued by Sony in the big Carnegie Hall set.

    Getting back to your post, I do think that many of Toscanini’s performances are still very relevant to contemporary listeners because, like other older greater conductors, he had something personal and important to say about the music, and he possessed the means to convey this via the orchestras he conducted. Important and interesting as an historically informed approach is, its value is diminished if the interpreter does not believe wholeheartedly in the music being performed.

    As always, I enjoy your programmes and articles, which have been responsible over the years for numerous purchases, somewhat to the consternation of my wife and bank manager.

    Best,
    Lawrence

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    1. Many thanks Lawrence. I too have been listening to those ‘Immortal Performances’ transfers and I endorse 100% what you say about the 1935 German Requiem, a powerful, unhurried and consistently intense interpretation – to boot, in German rather than in English (ie, it’s NBC successor, which has a different sort of impact). I must check out that Beethoven 5th – which I have heard. There’s a BBC Jupiter, too, which I heard year ago and would love to hear again. I have all three American Missas – 1935, 1940 and the 1950s RCA version. Has the 1940 version appeared in the ‘Immortal Performances’ series? If so I haven’t seen it. Best.

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      1. Thanks, Rob.

        To my best knowledge, the 1940 Missa Solemnis has not appeared in the ‘Immortal Performances’ series, but a good transfer by the same engineer, Richard Caniell, is available on the Guild Historical label; so they may have other priorities.

        Having read Christopher Dyment’s fascinating book, I am intrigued by rare or ‘missing’ Toscanini BBC performances. Maybe, you can persuade someone to issue decent transfers of the Jupiter and the Beethoven 5. I’d buy a copy!

        As I mentioned before, the internet comes up with some interesting (?) things. Have you sampled this transfer of the 1936 Beethoven 7 with the New York Phil (link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qRi46iB85oU&t=748s)? Some of this poster’s transfers come off less well and I am bit sceptical of his claims, but he has some great performances by various ‘legends’.

        Best,
        Lawrence

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      2. Hans Koers

        A word of caution: I was interested in Immortal Performance’s 2016 Toscanini 1939 Beethoven set, transferred and mastered by Richard Caniell, and contacted them; they told me they had released it on CD-R to reduce costs. Given the relatively high price they are asking for these CD-Rs (116 Canadian dollars plus postage) I decided to pass.

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      3. Thanks Hans. Disappointing, but interesting to know. To be honest if I’d been aware that that was to be the case I probably wouldn’t have covered the sets in Gramophone. Still good to know they are available in some form (and I see from Immortal Performances’ website that there’s a good deal more listed that’s of interest). It’s a torturous business – knowing that there are plenty of keen takers but not enough to make a proper release of the material commercially viable, or at least I’m assuming that that’s the problem. Incidentally RCA’s new Ania Dorfman set includes a very clean transfer of the Choral Fantasy under Toscanini (from the 1939/40 Beethoven cycle), surely a first-ever fully commercial release. Thanks again for writing and do keep in touch. Best. Rob.

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      4. Hans Koers

        I asked Immortal Performances’ Scott Cherry why they were using CD-Rs instead of regular CDs and he came up with a rather technical explanation, something about CD-Rs giving them more freedom to remaster the music again and again, each time they felt the sound could be improved, something glass masters (or whatever they’re called) wouldn’t allow them to do. The cost of making glass masters each time was also a factor. I know next to nothing about those technical aspects, but I still think they should be using regular CDs; I also think it’s not correct that they don’t mention their using CD-Rs on their website. Best, Hans

        Liked by 1 person

      5. Hans Koers

        Rob, just noticed the Dorfmann RCA set you mentioned and several other recent RCA sets (Erick Friedman, John Browning, to name but two). I have no idea who owns the rights these days, but I hope RCA will now also release the Toscanini 1939 Beethoven cycle (they can leave out the radio commentary as far as I’m concerned). Meanwhile, I think I’ll stick with the Naxos Toscanini 1939 Beethoven CDs from the 1990s, which were also transferred and mastered by Richard Caniell – I’m told he wasn’t satisfied with the end product and apparently the Naxos series was withdrawn; no idea what his objections were. There are more recent remastered releases, but I have my doubts about all the mysterious sound processing they’re boasting about – sometimes one can do more harm than good. Best, Hans

        Liked by 1 person

  5. As a young music-lover, I grew up with the recordings of Toscanini – long before I had any idea that I would be a professional bassoonist performing much of the music that I listened to so eagerly back in the 1960s. Toscanini retired in 1954 – the year I was born, so my experience of his musical interpretations was of course only from recordings, which really shaped my musical thinking during my formative years.

    In my youthful enthusiasm, I snapped up every Toscanini recording I could find, on 78s and vinyl, but what really made me ‘grow up’ in musical terms was coming across the occasional disappointing interpretation. I had to listen much more carefully – and place his interpretations in the context of performances by other great conductors – to understand why some worked and others didn’t.

    In 2017, after 43 years as principal bassoonist in Manchester Camerata, I now return to Toscanini’s recordings with the same enthusiasm and sheer joy of fabulous music-making, but with a great deal more insight and understanding than previously. I fail to understand how some of my player-colleagues have no interest in listening to recordings or attending concerts – for me, it is the life-blood of what I do and how I do it, continuing that never-ending process of learning about musical performance and how we convey the essence of what a composer is attempting to convey.

    My thoughts about Toscanini fall under four main headings:

    NOT ALL REPERTOIRE WAS RIGHT FOR HIM

    This is a fate that many international musicians have suffered – both conductors and players. Because Toscanini was considered by many to be “the greatest conductor in the world”, of course he had to be good at everything! No such luck – and it was the same for anyone who was hailed at that level. With occasional specific exceptions, baroque and early classical were not his strong areas, partly for reasons given under the next heading. Mozart and Haydn fared particularly badly. Taking repertoire I know really well as an example, I feel for Leonard Sharrow (a fine bassoonist who’s playing I’ve always admired) who entered a battleground with the maestro’s heavy-handed accompaniment to the Mozart Bassoon Concerto K.191 (1948). There was a similarly clumsy approach to the accompaniment for the Haydn Sinfonia Concertante (also 1948), which may have contributed to Sharrow being a full bar out in his last movement solo – this recording should never have been issued. Toscanini pre-empted the more recent concept of the ‘Haydn scherzo’ (highly controversial) in his ‘Surprise’ Symphony No. 94 (1953) – it’s fast, but again, I feel it is clumsy and heavy-handed. Good examples are the Haydn ‘Clock’ Symphony No.101 (1929, NYPSO) and the Mozart ‘Haffner’ Symphony No. 35 (1936, NYPSO) – interestingly, both examples earlier in his career, and although larger-scale than we are used to nowadays, nevertheless delicately and sensitively conveyed with appropriate flexibility.

    SYMPHONY VERSUS CHAMBER ORCHESTRA

    I feel that the problem with the above examples is that in essence, Toscanini was a symphonic conductor. Having spent 43 years in a chamber orchestra, I know from the inside just how different these sound-worlds are, and the maestro didn’t seem to be at home with smaller-scale chamber orchestra settings. He was a great master of delicate passages and subtle balancing of just a few instruments, but this would ultimately need to be in the context of a work for large forces. His performance of the Beethoven Septet (4 performances between 1939 and 1951) with its large string section and three wind players(!) sounds like an attempt to turn the piece into another Beethoven symphony! That said, his handling of the ‘real’ Beethoven symphonies for me is without parallel. So much has been written on this subject, so i will limit my comments to personal experience of playing all nine symphonies with Manchester Camerata and Douglas Boyd (live performances on the Avie label). Boyd takes a Harnoncourt-style approach (having worked with him for 20 years in COE), and there are very strong links between this approach and Toscanini’s performances – texturing, phrase direction, internal perspective and articulation are just a few of the key elements. (My final heading adds to this). The only main differences are more to do with playing styles of that time – Toscanini’s strings more sustained with vibrato, and the woodwind (especially the NBC players) with a bright, somewhat hard-edged quality that doesn’t blend all that well. I don’t think even the maestro could do much about this!

    HIS RELATIONSHIP WITH PLAYERS

    Again, so much has been written about Toscanini’s temperament! From a player’s perspective, whilst one does not want a conductor to rant and rave in rehearsal and make everyone’s life a daily misery, there is definitely a case for bring players to the edge of their seats – it’s a place that not all orchestral players default to, but it is totally necessary in order to achieve great performances. The behaviour of Toscanini and a few others of that time would not be considered acceptable nowadays, but it takes a very skilful psychologist-conductor nowadays to achieve a similar ‘edge of the seat’ state. You can hear this so clearly in numerous of Toscanini’s performances – fine examples are his 1939 Beethoven Choral Symphony (despite less-than-wonderful soloists in the last movement), his Respighi Roman Trilogy from RCA – all recorded separately, but with very consistent high energy and total commitment, and an astonishing Brahms 2nd Symphony live performance with the BBC Symphony Orchestra (1938) – not perfect by any means, but you can hear the players almost falling off their seats with sheer energy and involvement!

    FAITHFUL TO THE COMPOSER’S INTENTIONS

    Another controversy! This was one of Toscanini’s hallmarks that some have forgotten or overlooked nowadays – it was more important to him than anything else. One big problem in his day was the lack of urtext editions that we all use as standard now. The old Breitkopf editions of the Beethoven symphonies were mostly fine, so there was very little compromise here, but the lack of (for instance) Robbins Landon editions of Haydn symphonies may have in some way contributed to his generally poor performances of this music – the scores and parts he had included wrong harmonies and orchestrations. He also took this process further, into a dangerous territory – daring to alter the music on occasions to realise in performance what the composer really intended. I have slightly mixed feelings about this, and the only way is to take each instance separately. For example, I feel that his adding of horns to the Scherzo of Beethoven 9 (bar 93 and equivalent passages) does really help – it was not possible for Beethoven to do this with natural horns, and there were no other resources left in the orchestral line-up to correct was is clearly a balance problem. In the last movement (like numerous other conductors) he adopts a totally musical and convincing speed for the Turkish March, rather than the blatantly wrong metronome marking in the score. However, was he right to continue the trumpet line in the first movement of the Eroica (bars 659-666) when the notes he added were available to Beethoven, had he wanted them? Maybe this was one of numerous errors that crept into Beethoven’s scores as a result of his untidy, chaotic manuscripts and his tortuous relationship with his copyist – who knows? One can ramble on for ever about such details and achieve very little, but what really shines out in Toscanini’s performances is that sense of a ‘hot line’ to the composer, rather than ‘this is my wonderful interpretation’ which we still so often hear. This – more than anything – is why I come back to these old recordings time and time again, re-living great performances that in many cases really do seem to get to the heart of what the music is all about.

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    1. Thank you for that super posting Laurence … great to have it on the blog. Re AT’s Mozart, I’ve always loved his NBC version of the Divertimento No. 15 (whether live or studio), so clean, warmly expressive and elegant. Fascinating this business of falling in and out of love with specific recordings. The one I still adore if the 1935 BBC SO Brahms 4, the finale in particular …imposing beyond belief. Many thanks, also for the years of pleasure you’ve given us as a player. Rob.

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      1. Funnily enough, I don’t know the NBC version of Mozart Divertimento No. 15, so I will track that one down! Thank you for all your great programmes and special insight into performances from the past as well as present-day – in my view, both equally important, as well as being a joy to explore. I look forward to the Toscanini celebration next month!

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  6. Thanks so much Laurence. To be honest choosing for the week was in some respects a joy, and in others, a headache – so much that s wonderful. Interesting that Richard Osborne in Gramo made flattering remarks about AT’s Jupiter, which has always left me cold (unlike Szell, Harnoncourt, Bernstein (VPO), and Beecham’s Sony version). Immortal Performances have just released a fabulous New York Phil Brahms German Requiem from 1935 with Schorr and Rethberg but unfortunately my editors would never pass such poor sound quality for broadcasting … though the likes of us would listen through it. Still, I get their point. Kind regards. Rob.

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