To commemorate the 150th-anniversary of the birth (on 25 March 1867) of surely the twentieth-century’s greatest conductor, Sony Classical has enlisted two Toscanini specialists – Harvey Sachs and Christopher Dyment – to make their selection of recordings from the RCA back-catalogue, all presented in their previous re-mastering. So what do you get?
Disc one features Haydn, which is fine. Arturo Toscanini (who died in January 1957) was an interesting Haydn conductor and in 1945 he gave a rhythmically alive account of Symphony 98 with the NBCSO (the orchestra that was created for him). The slow introduction is suitably grave, the tempo for the Allegro relaxed, as is the Adagio cantabile, the Minuet is powerful, and the Finale moves elegantly yet purposefully forward, and throughout one notes the use of sforzando and staccato pointing. Prior to moving to NBC, Toscanini was music director of the New York Philharmonic and from 1929 there is a performance of No.101 (Clock), let down by sluggish tempos in the slow movement and Minuet; and the disc’s playing time of fifty-one minutes is unacceptably short.
We then move to Mozart and Beethoven. The former’s ‘Haffner’ and ‘Jupiter’ Symphonies receive very modern readings, with swift tempos, much rhythmic attack and layered textures, but unlike virtually everything else Toscanini did there is no real affection or soul, something one cannot say of his Beethoven and the celebrated New York Philharmonic Seventh. Toscanini omits repeats – like Carlos Kleiber in his live accounts, the only other serious contender for the title of greatest Beethoven conductor – and he uses moderate tempos, he moulds the melodic line, delineates rhythm (think supercharged Rossini), builds wonderfully structured, transparent climaxes and holds everything in a vice-like grip where there is palpable tension and latent power. He did however do it even better with the BBC Symphony Orchestra live at the Queen’s Hall in 1935; so like the Mozart this is not essential.
On the following disc we have Beethoven’s Fourth and Fifth Symphonies, the former from the early-1950s’ cycle and the latter from 1939 (if not part of the integral that Toscanini gave live late in that year) and lacking the first-movement repeat and without the unforced power, wit, natural rubato, minor changes of tempo and sense of dialogue between the violins, although it makes every period-instrument account sound anodyne. However given that Sony had access to the October 1939 ‘Eroica’ (included in the 1992 set) you do wonder why that wasn’t chosen. In the Fifth we have enormous drive in the first movement – if two unnecessary rallentandos in the development section – a patrician account of the Andante and almost unnervingly driven (which is not the same as being speedy) accounts of the last two movements. But, if you have the 1939 cycle (Music and Arts), you don’t need this.
There are then two discs embracing music by Schubert, Schumann, Mendelssohn and Berlioz. The Schubert is the ‘Great’ C-major Symphony with the Philadelphia Orchestra from November 1941. Toscanini had temporarily fallen out with NBC over a variety of issues; what you get here is unexpectedly good in terms of sound and the performance is stellar. From the opening bars of the slow introduction one hears, at a swift tempo, marvellous string tone, characterful woodwind and crisp trenchant chords; the move to the Allegro brings a slight slowing and then one notes the relaxation for the second half of the first subject, the lightness of articulation, dynamic shading, slight changes of gear and one can say much the same about the rest, which always sounds completely right. Elsewhere in the set, also from Philadelphia, there are equally authoritative readings of Debussy’s La mer and Ibéria and a riotous outing for Respighi’s Feste romane.
We then have Schumann’s ‘Rhenish’ Symphony (NBC) that effortlessly combines rhythmic élan, meticulous attention to micro and macro dynamics, instrumental clarity (listen to the brass in the Finale) and there is a command that no other conductor equals. The extracts from Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, from Carnegie Hall, are similar to his live version with the BBCSO, singularly lacking in grace (the Overture is a mad scramble) and like the Mozart should not have been included. There are then three Weber Overtures that receive virtuosity, where – as at the start of Oberon – the delicacy of the phrasing is a joy, as it is in ‘Queen Mab Scherzo’ from Berlioz’s Romeo and Juliet, and in the ‘Hungarian March’ from The Damnation of Faust the articulation is stunning, the control of tension absolute.
Given that Toscanini is arguably the greatest of all Brahms conductors, inevitably there is a disc devoted to him, but Sony has a problem in that his finest Brahms recordings aren’t available for this compilation, such as the !942-43 NBC and the 1952 Philharmonia cycles. But instead of the hard-driven Second Symphony here, the First from 1941 would have been a better example of Toscanini’s Brahms at its most powerfully volatile. By way of compensation the 1936 ‘Haydn’ Variations (New York) flows beautifully on a bed of ultra-refined playing. The disc’s playing-time is again too short.
When we look at the 1947 Tchaikovsky ‘Pathétique’ Symphony, Strauss’s Death and Transfiguration (1952) and his Don Juan (1951), again Sony doesn’t have access to the best. By some distance the 1938 concert performance (Naxos) is Toscanini’s greatest account of the ‘Pathétique’ (but failing that there is Philadelphia) while both Strauss scores are done better by the La Scala Orchestra or NBC in 1940 for Don Juan and Philadelphia in 1942 for Death – and one does wonder why the Philadelphia versions weren’t used. As it is you still get superb renditions, but some of the marvellous drama and exhilarating power of the 1938 Tchaikovsky is missing and the phrasing in the Strauss pieces is suppler, although Liadov’s Kikimora is very atmospheric, but the overall fifty-minute length isn’t acceptable.
There are no such reservations about Sibelius’s Pohjola’s Daughter (1940) and The Swan of Tuonela (1944) where the NBC strings sound as though they are coated in ice. Indeed given how distinguished a Sibelian Toscanini was, it is a pity that an entire disc wasn’t devoted to this composer (the Second Symphony could have been added).
Included with the Philadelphia Debussy is an exceptionally beautiful, languorous, yet crystalline, account of the Second Suite from Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe, which explodes with energy in the concluding bacchanal. There is also Kodály’s Háry János, Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings and, in amongst the operas, a couple of Rossini Overtures – great Rossini-conducting, yet Semiramide is even finer with the 1935 BBCSO and there are magnificent versions of other Rossini Overtures that are not here despite all the space available. Given that Toscanini’s 1940 version of Enescu’s First Romanian Rhapsody (on Pristine) is the finest available it is surprising how uninvolving and sluggish the Kodály is. Toscanini gave the premiere of Barber’s Adagio in 1938 and this 1952 version is almost exactly the same; both are profoundly eloquent and completely devoid of sugary sentimentality.
And so to the opera recordings, which include ‘bleeding chunks’ of Wagner. The eleventh disc features Act Two of an opera apparently by Gluck called Orfeo ed Euridice, which sounds more like Wagner, such is the weight and refulgence of the string tone, the attack and generosity of phrasing (in ‘Dance of the Blessed Spirits’ the strings and woodwinds glow); the chorus is large, its tone – replete with full vibrato – decidedly romantic, as are Nan Merriman and Barbara Stone as the protagonists.
During World War Two Toscanini conducted concerts designed to support the offensive and on 25 May 1944 at Madison Square Garden – in aid of the Red Cross – he gave an object lesson in Verdi interpretation, Act Four of Rigoletto in which the melodic line truly soars. The application of rubato, subtle tempo changes, crisp rhythms, and when needed – as in the storm – frightening attack; the drama is intense and the totality is profoundly moving. The cast (including Leonard Warren, Jan Peerce and Zinka Milanov) sing their hearts out, although you feel sorry for Peerce, denied the unwritten high-B-flat at the end of ‘La donna è mobile’.
Then we have complete performances of Otello and Falstaff, from 1947 and 1950 respectively. In both Toscanini stands supreme, with only Carlos Kleiber equalling him in the former; and yet he could do Falstaff better, as anyone who has heard the 1937 Salzburg Festival account knows. Yes the sound there is crude, but there is even more humanity, the humour is marvellous and everything flows wonderfully to a profoundly uplifting final fugue. The RCA casts are pretty good. Giuseppe Valdengo’s virile baritone is ideally suited to Iago and Falstaff; Ramon Vinay has the heroic timbre for Otello but can also spin a plangent pianissimo line; Herva Nelli is no more than adequate as Desdemona (so too Antonio Modasi as Fenton), but better as Mistress Alice; Frank Gaurrera has the necessary heft for Ford and he and Valdengo bring a real sense of sly wit to their Act Two duet; Nan Merriman is a characterful Mistress Page and the young Teresa Stich-Randall excels as Nannetta.
Leaving Wagner until last, we now have La bohème from 1946, celebrating the 50th-anniversary of Toscanini conducting the premiere at Teatro Regio, Turin. Sit back and listen as Toscanini powers his way through each Act. There is joy and comedy in the first one, which gives way to soaring lyricism as Mimi enters and Toscanini sings (if one can call it that) along ecstatically as Peerce (in ardent form) approaches the high-C in ‘Che gelida manina’. Every facet of Act Two is brought brilliantly to life, the conclusion coruscating; the sombre lines of Act Three are beautifully drawn, the balancing of orchestral parts brilliant, the dynamic shading completely unforced; and in Act Four Toscanini lets the music speak and breathe naturally without adding to its already excessive sentimentality (something the Mimi, Licia Albanese, is alas incapable of doing). And while all the principal roles have been sung better, the sense of ensemble and cumulative force is exceptional.
Finally there is Wagner, including ‘Siegfried’s Rhine Journey’ from Götterdämmerung with the NYP in 1936. The opening is very measured, there is some beautiful clarinet-playing, the brass has huge impact and the principal horn enjoys himself; but nowhere does the tempo rise above allegro moderato (it is worth remembering that in 1931 Toscanini set the record for the slowest performance ever of Parsifal at Bayreuth). Come September 1941 Toscanini and NBC were joined by Helen Traubel and Lauritz Melchior for ‘Brünnhilde’s Immolation’ and Act One/scene 3 of Die Walküre. Traubel effortlessly rides every tempo change, which are seamlessly integrated into the whole; the delineation of line and rhythm is echt-Wagnerian, and more than in virtually any other version one is aware of a conversation between singer and orchestra and the speech-like characterisation of the leitmotifs. Rather bizarrely we then have ‘Siegfried’s Death & Funeral March’ (why wasn’t it placed after the Rhine Journey?) which is suitably grave and slow, but the 1935 BBC take is even more apocalyptically shattering. In Die Walküre Melchior makes all present-day so-called heldentenors sound hopelessly inadequate, and he also invests the words with a Lieder-like attention to detail, and despite Traubel having too heavy a voice for Sieglinde, she also means every word.
So, is this collection “essential”? Unfortunately Sony does not have access to many of Toscanini’s utmost performances; and, for what is essentially a fairly cheap-and-cheerful reissue, one imagines there was no time and money to acquire and re-master other material. There is no concert choral music, which is surprising given that nobody has done Beethoven’s Ninth, Missa solemnis or Verdi’s Requiem better; no Concertos, so you don’t hear Toscanini with Heifetz, Horowitz or Serkin; and some of the choice of material is odd, almost as though it was decided to feature him in as wide a repertoire as possible at different times of his career, rather than simply choosing the best, although what constitutes the latter is always going to be highly subjective.
Then there is the sound. In 1992 RCA issued a Toscanini edition with black and white covers, the reproduction of which was in the main unacceptably dry. A few years later dome of the better-known examples were issued in a higher-definition format, and in 2006 the Philadelphia recordings came out; most of this current collection is thus derived. However Pristine Classical has produced brilliant versions of the 1941 Wagner concert (albeit from a day earlier), La bohème and Otello, where the voices and orchestra are much fuller and there is a far greater sense of presence and projection, and Melchior’s high-A at the end of Walküre can be heard in all its glory.
So, this is an interesting box, which might for those new to Toscanini act as an entry point to a whole treasure trove of riches: conducting simply doesn’t come any better.