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Every day we post 10 new Classical CD and DVD reviews. A free weekly summary is available by e-mail. MusicWeb is not a subscription site. To keep it free please purchase discs through our links.

  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    


BARGAIN OF THE MONTH

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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony No 1 in C major, Op. 21 * [26í19"]
Symphony No 4 in B flat major, Op.60 ** [30í34"]
ĎLeonoraí Overture No 1 ** [8í03"]
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Arturo Toscanini
Recording in Queenís Hall, London: * 25 October, 1937; ** 1 June, 1939
NAXOS HISTORICAL 8.110854 [64í55"]


Between 1935 and 1939 Arturo Toscanini paid no less than five visits to London to give concerts and make recordings with the BBC Symphony Orchestra. This was a considerable feather in the cap of this young orchestra and its founder/trainer, Dr Adrian Boult. The present recordings were made during the second and the last of those visits. The story of Toscaniniís relationship with the orchestra is related in more detail in Ian Julierís very good notes.

The performance of the delightful, effervescent First Symphony is a very fine one. It opens with a dignified reading of the introduction to the first movement. This is marred very slightly by some imprecise chording but thatís the last blemish on the BBC orchestraís playing. Toscanini draws some excellent legato lines out of the players. The main body of the movement is genial but energetic. Itís a joyful affair, just as it should be. Comparing it with the exactly contemporaneous Vienna account by Felix Weingartner (also on Naxos) I found that Toscanini was a little more wont to relax though not to the detriment of the flow of the musical argument. He also observes the exposition repeat, which I like. The BBC orchestraís playing is excellent and very responsive. Indeed, comparing these readings with Toscaniniís 1951 recordings of the same works I found that throughout both this performance and that of the Fourth symphony the BBC players did not suffer at all in comparison with the playing of the NBC Symphony. I say this bearing in mind that the NBCSO was a band which Toscanini knew much better

The andante is beautifully played with affectionate phrasing. Again Toscanini observes the exposition repeat; something he didnít do in 1951. I found the phrasing smoother than in the Weingartner recording and preferred Toscaniniís version for that reason. In 1951 his adopted speed is just a little less relaxed; I prefer the 1937 reading. The Menuetto is light on its feet, featuring nimble and dextrous playing from the BBC SO. By contrast the 1951 remake is a bit more deliberate and I prefer the lighter touch of the earlier reading. The finale opens wonderfully. The slow introduction lasts a mere 33 seconds here but in that short space of time Toscanini conjures up a marvellous sense of anticipation, even more than he achieved in 1951. This is great conducting. The main allegro scampers along like quicksilver, displaying a real kinship with the finale of Mozartís ĎJupiterí symphony. In short, this is a very fine reading. I like the 1951 version very much but, on balance, I think the earlier account is even more convincing and Iím delighted that itís available.

The Fourth Symphony begins with a lengthy introduction and here Toscanini imparts a real sense of mystery and tension. The main allegro, in which the repeat is omitted, goes at a tremendous lick. It sounds joyful and exuberant, not driven. The BBC players respond enthusiastically. Itís noticeable how closely Toscanini observes Beethovenís many dynamic markings and just how much energy is released as a direct result. This is a clear case of respect for the score producing the best results.

The slow movement is not one of Beethovenís best, in my opinion. However, once again Toscanini ensures that it is played with scrupulous attention to detail; there is some fine work by the woodwind principals. The difficult scherzo (Beethovenís hardest?) is played with real panache. There is excellent ensemble in the ebullient and difficult finale - special credit here to the scurrying strings. Again, I thought this was a pretty marvellous performance.

The disc is rounded off with a splendid, dramatic reading of the Leonora Overture No. 1. This was recorded on the same day as the Fourth Symphony. The performances of these two pieces took place only a few days after Toscanini had guided the orchestra through a thrilling reading of the Missa Solemnis (available on BBC Legends). Clearly conductor and orchestra were on vintage form at this time.

In an accompanying note Mark Obert-Thorn points out that the transfer of the Fourth Symphony was particularly problematical because the original recording of the last few minutes was sonically compromised even when it was issued. The sound in the last two or three minutes of the finale is less bright, the detail is less clear and the bass is more boomy. However, the deterioration in sound quality is fairly slight and I doubt that it will inhibit enjoyment. What the note also demonstrates is the tremendous effort Mr. Obert-Thorn has made to secure an acceptable transfer. Pre-war Victor pressings were used. He combined the best sides from four different copies of the First symphony, six of the overture and no less than seven of the Fourth symphony. All this effort for a CD selling at super budget price!!

Suffice it to say that the engineerís skill has not been wasted. What we have here is a very fine set of performances which show why Arturo Toscanini was such a great conductor. To be able to achieve such results with an orchestra with which he did not work regularly is remarkable indeed, the more so when one recalls that the orchestra had only been established a few years before. What a tribute the playing is also to Boultís training!

To be asked to pay £5 or the equivalent for such vital, engaging examples of re-creative musicmaking is as absurd as it is generous. I hope that there will be more such issues including other material recorded during Toscaniniís London visits. In the meantime, bravo Toscanini, bravo BBC SO, bravo Naxos! Strongly recommended.

John Quinn

see also review by Tim Mahon

 



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