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Early Music

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Arturo Toscanini
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)

Coriolan Overture and rehearsal
Quartet No. 13 Op. 130 – Cavatina (1825-26)
Quartet No. 9 Op. 59 No. 3 – Fugue (1805-06)
Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major Op. 58 (1805-06) – two versions
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)

Piano Concerto No. 27 in B flat major K595 (1791)
Rudolf Serkin (piano)
NBC Symphony Orchestra/Arturo Toscanini
Recorded 23 February 1936 (Beethoven Concerto No 4 and Mozart) and 26 November 1944 (remainder - bar the Coriolan rehearsal, 1946)
GUILD GHCD 2228/9 [2 CDs: 132.22]

Essentially an all-Beethoven affair (barring the Mozart B flat major) the first disc of this two CD slimline double, in Guild’s latest release devoted to the Toscanini-NBC broadcasts, dates from 26 November 1944. There’s also a Coriolan rehearsal from November 1946. The second disc is a much earlier broadcast from 24 February 1936 and in good sound for the period. I admire the series – much as I remain ambivalent about some of the musical results obtained by these forces – but it seems to me that interest in this issue will invariably be lessened by the inclusions of two versions of the Beethoven G major Concerto – both played by Serkin and conducted by Toscanini with the accustomed array of clipped phrase endings. There are also the Quartet movements – intellectually un-nourishing in theory but, as Josef Gingold averred, rather marvellous in execution, should you ever wish to hear them in this bloated guise.

Coriolan starts proceedings – firm, decisive chording, scrupulous dynamics and some kinetic attacks that seethe through the work and give it dramatic life (the rehearsal from 1946 makes explicit some of Toscanini’s occasionally brittle priorities in the work). There’s little to say of the Quartet movements except that they are beautifully played – in their way – but that the Cavatina from Op. 130 is fast (albeit with a magnetically sustained legato) and the Fugue from the first Razumovsky shows off some sterling uniformity of string entry points (as well they had to be) but that the arrangement for a string orchestra in this case simply doesn’t work. Serkin’s playing of the G major in 1944 is exceptionally uneven. His passagework in the first movement is strangely frivolous and unyielding – albeit fluent – and a certain breathlessness pursues the reading; a generalised feeling for want of a better phrase and superficial. In the slow movement he is glacial and to me – others will doubtless find him otherwise – unengaging. And in the finale he engages in too many abstract point-making phrases for comfort. Yes, there is much that is fluid and fine but measured against the greats – Fischer, Solomon, Schnabel and so on – this is simply not operating on the same level of emotional and intellectual engagement.

The 1936 performance of the same work is better. The acetates have some wear and the recording is at a lower level but nothing is seriously amiss. There is increased expressivity in the first movement and no sense of mechanical or frivolous passagework. There’s greater flexibility and sense of texture both from soloist and conductor – a pity about the doubtless very difficult acetate join towards the end of the movement. Serkin is much slower in the second movement than he was later – there is a concomitant gain in verticality of tonal response and emotive participation. And Toscanini’s veiled string shading in the last movement is apt and well played – even though the timings are identical in this movement the earlier performance has notable gains in incision and is, aural problems notwithstanding, much to be preferred. That concert ends with the Mozart Concerto, suave strings (maybe over suave) but affectionate pointing in the slow movement and the flute and piano exchanges are full of wisdom and affectionate understanding.

Transfers and notes are to a high level and the release keeps up the standard set by Guild. I’m less happy about some of the performances.

Jonathan Woolf



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