> Arturo Toscanini [GPJ]: Classical CD Reviews- July2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Arturo TOSCANINI (1867-1957)
Complete Concert and War Bond Concert

Complete Concert, October 1938

Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958) Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897) – Symphony no.3 in F op. 90
Giuseppe MARTUCCI (1856-1909) - Notturno; Novelletta

Piotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893) – Fantasy Overture ‘Romeo & Juliet
War Bond Concert, April 1942

J.S. BACH (1685-1750) Air from Suite no. 3 in D
Franz Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809) – Symphony no. 101 in D "The Clock"
NBC Symphony Orchestra/Toscanini
CD1 recorded 15th October 1938 (venue?)
CD2 recorded 4th April 1942 (venue?)
GUILD GHCD 2211/12 [1:52:50]

This double CD set gives a good idea of that breadth of musical sympathies which was a prime characteristic of Toscanini.

CD1 opens with a remarkable performance of the Vaughan Williams Tallis Fantasia – on the face of it, one of the last works you would associate with the fiercely passionate Italian maestro. Yet this is a reading that has so many wonderful virtues. The string playing is of the highest calibre, not only the large ensemble but the solos as well. Toscanini keeps the music moving gently forward without ever seeming to press uncomfortably, and he builds the climaxes with all the burning intensity one would hope for. There are one or two patches of mild radio interference, and perhaps the most disappointing thing is the way the audience applause bursts in almost before the final pp chord has faded to silence. Despite these small annoyances, this is a performance that recreates the spirit of Vaughan Williams’ unique work in an extraordinarily convincing way.

The same can be said of the Brahms Third Symphony that follows. Again, one is aware of the superb quality of the instrumental playing, which has the tightness of ensemble of chamber music. Toscanini must be allowed some indulgences in his interpretation – the reduction of the tone at 0:13 on Track 2 is an example, something that Brahms does not specify – but Brahms is a composer he had an instinctive empathy with. The first movement has an energy and alertness which captures the colour and optimism of the music wonderfully, and once again, the recording is sufficiently faithful to allow this to come through. It is ‘top-heavy’, though, and places where the textural interest is located in the middle or lower parts of the orchestra undoubtedly fare less well than the fuller or more brightly scored passages. Toscanini’s gradation of climaxes was always one of his greatest strengths, and the one in the coda in this movement is thrilling.

The slow movement is unusually quick. Then again, it is marked Andante – ‘walking pace’ if you like – and seems to move very naturally at this speed. There is much lovely wind playing and Toscanini allows himself a deeply expressive relaxing of the tempo at the beginning of the coda – 6:02 – which allows the full beauties of this, one of Brahms most glorious melodic flowerings, to be experienced to the full. The Poco Allegretto has plenty of the required charm without spilling over into coyness, while the finale is superbly done. The main part of the movement has great forward thrust and stormy grandeur, while the coda is magical; it sleep-walks its way to the soft conclusion, yet the textures are lucid, transparent. This is great music-making, and, for me, a deeply satisfying reading of the symphony, capturing its unity of inspiration. Brahms never expressed himself more concisely than here, and Toscanini understood this perfectly.

CD2 (once I had managed to get it out – when is somebody going to DO something about the packaging of CDs?) is a more varied selection. It begins with two short pieces by the Italian composer Giuseppe Martucci, Notturno and Novelletta. Toscanini held Martucci in high regard, and these are affectionate, beautifully phrased performances of two attractive miniatures.

The orchestral playing is, if anything, even better on CD2, four years on, and the recording likewise. Although, I must say it was surprising to hear the percussion having a little spot of difficulty with Tchaikovsky’s off-beat sword-fight rhythms in this otherwise stunning performance of Romeo and Juliet. Where Toscanini shows his greatness is in allowing the love music, in its resplendent reappearance, to surge on with irresistible urgency, so that it is felt as the cause of the violence that comes in its wake. The piece thus makes so much better symphonic and dramatic sense than it can do in the hands of a more sentimental, sensationalist conductor. Once again, Toscanini delivers one of the shortest versions on disc, without seeming to rush the music along.

The final couple of items on this second CD are obviously make-weights in a fairly light concert programme. The symphony is given, in all honesty, a pretty shoddy performance, and though the indestructible character and invention of the music comes through, the orchestra sounds under-rehearsed, and there are numerous rough edges. This is not helped by a recording which fluctuates badly in pitch with a most disconcerting effect, plus sound from another radio station which invades the quieter portions of the music. Doesn’t help!

Despite that, this is a set which is well worth having for the Vaughan Williams, Brahms and Tchaikovsky items, which receive the vintage Toscanini treatment.

Gwyn Parry-Jones

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