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The RCA NBC legacy stretches from 1937 to 1954, often involving, certainly if you include unpublished broadcasts, multiple versions of the same work which trace a marked curve of interpretative development.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!