> Toscanini (Schubert-Strauss-Haydn-Bach) [CF]: Classical Reviews- February 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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SCHUBERT: Symphony No.8 ‘Unfinished’
HAYDN: Sinfonia Concertante in Bb
BACH orch. RESPIGHI: Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor
NBC Symphony Orchestra
Arturo Toscanini (conductor)
Recorded live on 14 October 1939


This was Toscanini’s third season as Music Director of the NBC Orchestra and this CD is the opening concert recorded in the autumn of 1939 before a select audience in Symphony Hall at Radio City. The recording derives from a collection owned by Richard Blaine Gardner, a recording engineer and editor with whom Toscanini worked at RCA Victor. Copies of these tapes and discs were in turn passed down to Richard Caniell between 1949 and 1983, who subjected them to restorative processes, though retaining both the unfiltered sound and the original acoustics. One can only commend him and his team at Guild for their exemplary and painstaking work, for the result is very fine, and elsewhere in their catalogue music-lovers of an operatic disposition should explore their recent issues of Wagner, Mozart and Mussorgsky also reviewed on this website.

When radio and recordings got into their stride in the 1930s all sorts of prophets of doom began to be heard eliciting hostile cries from musicians afraid of being put out of work. The American Federation of Musicians, the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers fretted and warned their members of the threat to careers and demise of the concert. In fact the opposite occurred, for as more homes were equipped with radios, more people listened to symphonic broadcasts, more orchestras then took to the air, and attendance at concerts leaped to an all-time high, especially during the war when entertainment was more vital than ever.

The programme of this concert in many ways typifies the Maestro’s music-making, beginning with the more predictable Schubert and Strauss but followed by a surprising choice of a work by Haydn (though this composer’s symphonies were often found in Toscanini’s programmes) and concluding with Respighi’s tamperings, Stokowski-style, with Bach. Toscanini lingers over his Schubert in a brooding interpretation, whilst sunlight pours into his Haydn. The Sinfonia Concertante may be a comparative rarity but it is always a good work for an orchestra to put four of its principal players under the spotlight. Though unnamed in the booklet they are in fact Robert Bloom (oboe), William Polesi (bassoon), Mischa Mischakoff (violin), and Frank Miller (cello), who did indeed hold their respective chairs as principal players in the NBC Orchestra at the time. Toscanini’s Strauss has clarity in the orchestral playing, rhythmic tension, concentrated sweep of phrasing, burning passion, beauty and tenderness in the love music and power at the climaxes, in short the finest playing that day. Respighi’s somewhat distortedly pompous and over-pretentious, cloying view of the wonderful Passacaglia by Bach is a curiosity, but nothing more.

Whatever one’s view of Toscanini, his podium manner or his music-making, whether his phrasing is at times too breathless or over-expansive, he was a supreme conductor whose concerts preserved as this one has been (and with hopefully more to come) make essential listening.

Christopher Fifield

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