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TOSCANINI CONDUCTS BEETHOVEN. Choral fantasy for piano, chorus and orchestra; Symphony No 9 in D minor 'Choral'.   Anita Dorfman (piano), Jamila Novotna (soprano), Kerstin Thorburg (contralto), Jan Peerce (tenor), Nicola Noscona (bass), Westminster Choir, NBC Symphony Orchestra, Arturo Toscanini   . Radio broadcast of 2 December 1939. Naxos 8.110824 [AAD] [80'].

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The Choral Fantasy is given a rather brisk performance at times and, as a consequence, it sounds a different piece. It sounds 'modern' to begin with, then takes on a Bachian clarity before the 'modern' sound resumes. Hints at the Third Piano Concerto follow and there is some really muscular playing. Sometimes the performance has a childlike quality. The choir is a little distant at time but there are some really exciting moments reminding us of the greatness of this music. The climaxes are very fine and gloriously robust.

The Choral Symphony is not an easy work to bring off and has suffered from some eccentric and awful performances over many years. The televised broadcast from Ely Cathedral under Simon Rattle over Christmas 1999 was one such occasion. Igor Stravinsky told us that he found the rhapsodic finale lacked cohesion and I can see what he means. I have yet to hear a performance where all the soloists are equally good and where the choir is in fine voice and where the conductor keeps it all together as one movement, rather than several linked episodes. I suppose I hear this work at least four times a year and have about 40 recordings. The soloists on Karajan's discs are probably the best but his conducting and additions to Beethoven's score rule these performances out.

Toscanini's finale develops into a very fine performance. It begins with a blaze but no fire, and highlights the stop and start dilemma. The age of the recording means that some important sustained notes are not. The interplay of the strings and the bassoon some three and a half minutes in is exquisite as is the following string cantilena. The first timpani entry before the introduction of the bass is stunning and the woodwind accompaniment in his first extended solo is a revelation. The opening vocal quartet passage may seem a little strange today since it shows how styles have changed in 60 years. In our day everything is so polished and this loses something of the uninhibited enthusiasm as here. One of the soprano's tessituras is another revelation and the tenors excel at the first big climax. The solo tenor I did not admire. He sounds like Allan Jones in the super Marx brothers film A Night At the Opera, rather light and sugary. The following orchestral passage is played concertante and this quick tempo makes the next entry of the chorus to be exciting and the timpanist is having a really good day!

I have always thought that the passage for tenors and basses in unison is weak but the sublime 'crying' strings that follow, which the chorus copy, is one of those utterly sublime moments in all music and beautifully realised here. The fugal passage is somewhat hesitant but packs a mighty punch and reveals orchestral detail rarely heard. The brass sometimes sounds as if it is playing Sousa and lacks polish ... if you will forgive the concealed joke. The soprano is simply stunning in the next vocal quartet and the singing is very moving indeed. The final pages are unbelievably good.

But, don't buy this performance because if you do you will see the flaws in the modern performances by famous conductors and it may change your perception of them.

What Toscanini shows us is that Beethoven was a genius and is, perhaps, the greatest composer of all time.

Heartily recommended!


David Wright


David Wright

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