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Arturo Toscanini
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1826)

Symphony No.6 in F major Op.68 Pastoral
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)

Die Zauberflöte; Overture
Gioachino ROSSINI (1792-1868)

La Scala di seta; Overture
Carl Maria WEBER (1786-1826)

Invitation to the Dance - Rondo Brillant in D flat major Op.65 – orchestrated Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869)
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)

Tragic Overture
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Arturo Toscanini
Recorded London, 1937 and 1938
NAXOS 8.110877 [73.19]


Famous though it is, it’s always a salutary experience to listen afresh to Toscanini’s way with the Pastoral in 1937. Lean, fresh, lilting, driven by an imperturbable but flexible motor, what impresses more even than these is the sheer orchestral mastery. The conveyance of the naturalistic-through-musical means is notoriously taxing but time and again Toscanini elicits detail at a tempo that is forward moving but elastically relaxed. The opening movement, which he could press far too hard, is here, though bracing, notable for the sense of inexorable rightness of tempo generated as it is for the verdant woodwind playing of the BBC principals and the elegant string portamenti. The ‘scene by the brook’ achieves exceptional clarity and depth of feeling at a tempo that might surprise those who know Weingartner’s 1927 recording with the Orchestra of the Royal Philharmonic Society (also on Naxos). The latter was a swift and convulsively flowing 10.56 whereas Toscanini takes a minute longer. He doesn’t stint the storm at all but the climaxes are blended and calibrated and elsewhere the sense of drama and tension is palpable.

Coupled with the Pastoral is a series of works, all recorded at Queen’s Hall between 1937 and 1938. The Mozart is dramatic and powerful and though the strings of the BBC articulate splendidly they are sometimes pushed too fast. Rossini’s La Scala di Seta is buoyant though not necessarily preferable as a performance to Beecham’s contemporaneous recording, and the Weber-Berlioz, if it has to be done at all, is done with swagger. But the jewel of the overtures is Brahms’ Tragic Overture which he recorded a few days after the last of the Pastoral sessions (those sessions incidentally were spread out over the period of the London Festival, from June to October 1937). Boult and the orchestra had laid down their interpretation of it a few years earlier – one of Boult’s first BBC recordings and that was a fine enough disc from a long-admired Brahmsian. But Toscanini’s is still finer – taut, tense, coiled and powerfully focused.

For the transfers, producer Mark Obert-Thorn has used American Victors and has filled in some missing bars in the Pastoral where side-breaks led to a loss of music. Pitch has also been stabilized. I last heard the Pastoral on two LPs, the first a celebratory BBC box and the second an EMI Treasury set. The former had the better tonal qualities, warm and attractive, but was marred by the problems noted above – especially in the ‘Scene by the brook’ – though the surfaces were quiet. Naxos’s commercial Victors are pretty quiet as well and there is a good bloom to the sound – though the lean clarity of the orchestra is equally caught. Neville Cardus, amongst Toscanini’s British critics, was never persuaded by his Pastoral. Here’s a chance to put that judgement to the test.

Jonathan Woolf

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