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Great Conductors: Toscanini
Franz Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809) Symphony No. 88 in G major* [20í40"]
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791) Symphony No. 40 in G minor, K. 550** [22í44"]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827) String Quartet in F Major, Op. 135: Lento assai, cantante e tranquillo [8í25"]; Vivace [2í58"]*** [11í23"]
Nicolò PAGANINI (1782-1840) arr. Toscanini Moto Perpetuo**** [4í40"]
Gioachino ROSSINI (1792-1868) William Tell Overture***** [11í43"]
NBC Symphony Orchestra/Arturo Toscanini
Recorded in NBC Studio 8H, New York City *8 Mar 1938; **7 Mar 1938 and 27 Feb 1939; *** 8 Mar 1938; ****17 Apr 1939; ***** 1 and 29 Mar 1939 ADD
NAXOS HISTORIC 8.110895 [71í56"]

 

This CD usefully gathers together most of the earliest studio recordings that Toscanini set down with the newly formed NBC Symphony Orchestra in 1938 and 1939. Though the recordings were made in the notorious acoustic of Studio 8H I donít find the sound, at least as transferred here, as dry or aggressive as some Iíve encountered from this source.

Toscanini gives a generally swift reading of the Haydn symphony. The first movement is strongly propelled but it doesnít sound hard-driven to me. He takes the slow movement broadly, drawing singing lines from the players, and from the cello section in particular. The Menuetto is trenchant and I do wonder if it isnít a bit too forceful; it seems to me that the music lacks charm (a fatal flaw in Haydn) though the trio fares better in this respect. The finale bowls along at a great lick and the articulation of the NBC players is excellent.

The playing in the Mozart is again of a high standard, apart from a couple of cracked horn notes. In the first movement (in which the exposition repeat is taken) accents are sharply observed but thereís also "give" where appropriate. Some listeners may feel that the music is projected too strongly to the point of being "in your face". I wouldnít necessarily say that but perhaps a degree more relaxation at times would not have been amiss. The second movement moves along nicely. Many conductors take this too slowly for my taste but Toscanini remembers that the speed of a true Andante is walking pace and the music benefits greatly. The Menuetto is quite brisk while the finale is tremendously energetic.

Iím not sure to what extent the Beethoven movements are arranged in any way for full string orchestra; the documentation doesnít cover this point. In Toscaniniís hands the Lento is a grave elegy, which is beautifully phrased and played. I donít feel that the Vivace works quite as well in orchestral guise but Toscanini and his players make the best possible case for it.

The Paganini does nothing at all for me as music, Iím afraid, but itís well enough played. In the Rossini overture the Maestro gets virtuoso playing throughout. He welds the sections together skilfully and makes the piece into a miniature tone poem.

The transfers derive from pre-war U.S. Victor "Gold" label 78s. Engineer Mark Obert-Thorn has done an excellent job and I doubt that these performances have ever been available in better sound. Toscaniniís way with Mozart and Haydn may not be to all tastes, for some find him too aggressive in this repertoire. Iíve had the same view of some of his recordings of such music but I found the performances here to be direct and bracing and I enjoyed them. This is an interesting and recommendable CD that captures the great conductor at the start of the last phase of his career.

John Quinn

See also reviews by
Jonathan Woolf and by John Phillips



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