As the title implies, this book covers Toscaniniís
leadership of the NBC Symphony Orchestra from 1937 to 1954. The NBC
Symphony Orchestra was a crack ensemble created especially for Toscanini.
From the very beginning it was immensely popular Ė in fact for its first
concert, RCA received 50,000 requests for 1400 seats. Critic and teacher
(at Juilliard), Mortimer H. Frank was for many years the curator of
the Toscanini archive. In his new book, he offers a balanced and objective
assessment of Toscaniniís art and his considerable strengths and occasional
weaknesses correcting the often sweepingly inaccurate statements of
many of the maestroís ill-informed critics especially that Toscanini
always favoured fast tempi.
At the beginning of his association with the NBC Symphony
Orchestra, Toscanini confided some trepidation "I am now an old
man" (he was seventy in March 1937 and had a fifty-one-year career
behind him). Yet he was to go on to conduct some remarkable concerts
over seventeen, often gruelling concert seasons, frequently comprising
sixteen or so concerts. Sometimes he was in poor health; in fact, he
incurred a minor stroke during the 1951-52 season. Frank covers each
seasonís programme in detail listing every work performed with introductory
remarks to each season together with illuminating notes about outstanding
performances or unusual works performed. We therefore gain considerable
insight into Toscaniniís preferences. He was very fond of Beethoven
and Brahms, for instance, including a number of cycles of all their
symphonies; but he loathed the works of the modern Viennese school.
Frank makes the point that Toscanini had the greatest
respect for the composerís intentions. He comments, "Toscaniniís
many accounts of a given work may share some features but one is almost
never a clone of another. Such differences suggest how often the maestro
was rethinking and revising his conception of a score." There are
also accounts of the maestroís renowned volatility at rehearsals.
One of the most interesting chapters is the one devoted
to ĎThe NBC Repertoryí. Working from A for Atterberg, through to W for
Wolf-Ferrari, Frank lists all the works performed by the NBC Symphony
Orchestra with brief or copious notes (sometimes running to up to twelve
pages, for Brahms, for example) about Toscaniniís approach to the music
and significant performances and recordings. Just to take a few examples.
The entry for Atterberg gives a fascinating account of Tosaniniís 1943
broadcast/recording of the Symphony No. 6 in C major (The "Dollar"
Symphony) which Atterberg himself preferred to that of Beecham. Accounts
of performances of the relatively little known music of Toscaniniís
Italian friend, Martucci are included although Frankís unfair denigration
will irritate some (the lovely La canzone dei ricordi is hardly
"utterly wanting in dimension"). British music enthusiasts
will be interested in the section on Toscaniniís rendering of Elgarís
Enigma Variations considered by some, at the time, to be "un-English"
but welcomed by Sir Landon Ronald. I remember very well the 1951 recording,
and as Frank suggests "Toscaniniís conception [was notable] for
its flair for the dramatic, its plateaus of contrast from one variation
to another and its shaping and building of climaxes". Another notable
recording was the 1952 performance of Saint-Saënsís ĎOrganí Symphony
No. 3. "The breadth and grandeur of the finaleís close, for example,
suggests a nobility lacking in most other performances which seem frenetic,
even hysterical, by comparison. Tchaikovsky was not a composer for whom
Toscanini felt a strong affinity and so Tchaikovskyís music was seldom
performed. Interestingly, though, Toscanini admired Tchaikovskyís "Manfred"
Symphony saying it contained "not one banal note" (whereas
he thought the Fifth Symphony was banal!) However, this view did not
prevent Toscanini excising about a quarter of the length of the "Manfred"
Symphony (mostly from the finale)!
The book includes a number of helpful appendices rounding
out a complete picture of the NBC Symphony Orchestraís activities (Frank
also covers concerts directed by the many guest conductors including
Toscaniniís protégé, the enormously gifted, young Guido
Cantelli who was to die so tragically in an air crash.) The most significant
of these appendices, as far as we are concerned, must be the Discography
that begins appropriately with ĎThe RCA Toscanini Collection of eighty-two
CDs begun in 1990 and completed in 1992 that marked the first time that
all of Toscaniniís RCA recordings gained simultaneous availability.
I would have preferred to read more material and anecdotes
about Toscaniniís personal life in America during these years but one
could argue convincingly that such material would be outside the scope
of this book.
A valuable comprehensive survey of a vital phase in
Toscaniniís long career and one that corrects many misconceptions about
the considerable achievements of one of the 20th centuryís