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TOSCANINI CONCERT EDITION. Beethoven Symphony No 2 in D, Op 36; Symphony No 4 in B flat, Op 60; Overture Leonore No 3. With broadcast introductions and interval talk by Samuel Chotzinoff. NBC Symphony Orchestra, Arturo Toscanini.  Recorded at NBC on 4 November 1939 Naxos 8.110815-16 (2 CDs) [AAD] [95'].

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The restoration of these American broadcasts of sixty years ago are welcome. Their age means that the recordings are not perfect but, my goodness, the playing is.

Although a confirmed Beethovian, the Symphony No 2 has never been a favourite of mine largely because of the inane musical theme of the finale which is like a drunk taking a somersault. Listening to this I was struck by the similarities of the opening movement with the opening music of the ninth symphony. After the slow introduction, the allegro con brio is just that and played with splendid gusto. It was a revelation. The strings swirl like wild dervishes and the brass punctuation is electrifying. Here is noble proud music without the pomposity of Edwardian music and where an allegro is not a slow andante. The introductory adagio reveals much beauty from Toscanini and his orchestra which beauty I had not encountered before and the allegro matches the music for quality. The second movement is a larghetto which is a shade too fast for my taste but it is played with great elegance. It has a tenderness devoid of sentimentality. And how Beethoven developed his material rather than just repeat it over and over again as did Schubert. This movement is happy and, at this speed, rather playful. Memorable it certainly is. The scherzo is another happy movement quite at odds with Beethoven's anguish at his deafness. For Beethoven, life is still worth living despite cruel blows that occur. Again the speed is a little too fast but the result will please a lot of people. The conductor is really driving the orchestra.

And so to the finale. Once that silly opening theme is out of the way, the music develops in a stirring fashion and then that silly theme returns and after another fine exposition it returns for the third time. Some of the playing is a little exaggerated but doesn't it build up to a terrific climax.?

Beethoven's Symphony No 4 is a masterpiece. Berlioz's famous remark about the slow movement being so beautiful that no mortal man could have written it is well known. While I have heard it played better there is no denying the superlative quality of the piece. In the first movement's slow introduction there are a few quirky mannerisms and the sunny allegro has better advocates. But this is another performance of commitment and both the scherzo and finale have a wonderful sense of dash. I have always regretted Beethoven inserting that short slow passage towards the end of the finale since, as a consequence, the momentum is lost.

The Leonore No 3 Overture is given a thrilling performance. It is quite stunning at times. When Beethoven is played like this and not in the extreme styles of Klemperer and Karajan we are reminded of what a truly great composer he is. We have such an advocate today in Sir Roger Norrington.

I am not going to 'give stars' for performances and recordings because that would be difficult bearing in mind the vintage.

All I can say is that Beethoven is a genius and Toscanini a real maestro.


David C.F. Wright


David C.F. Wright

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