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  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    


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Arturo TOSCANINI: All-American Concerts
Charles Martin LOEFFLER (1861-1912): ‘Memories of my childhood’ (Life in a Russian Village) [13’06")
Paul CRESTON (1906-1985): Choric Dance No. 2, Op. 17 [4’45"]
Morton GOULD (1913-1996): A Lincoln Legend [16’18"]
George GERSHWIN (1898-1937): Rhapsody in Blue* [16’05"]
*Earl Wild (piano); Benny Goodman (clarinet) NBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Arturo Toscanini
Recorded in Studio 8H, Radio City, New York on 1 November 1942 AAD
Francesco MIGNONE (1897-1986): Festa das igrejas [20’54"]
George GERSHWIN Piano Concerto in F** [30’41"]
** Oscar Levant (piano)
NBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Arturo Toscanini
Recorded in Studio 8H, Radio City, New York on 2 April 1944 AAD
GUILD HISTORICAL GHCD 2256/7 [53’27"+53’47"]

 

The sort of repertoire listed above is not commonly associated with Toscanini so it’s good to hear him in something different, and enterprising of Guild to make these recordings available. Both derive from Toscanini’s hour-long radio broadcasts for NBC from Studio 8H and each disc contains a complete concert. As is Guild’s custom, the interlinking continuity announcements have been retained. This is something I rather like as it imparts a period feel but if you dislike such intrusions, don’t be put off; all the announcements are brief, none lasting above 50 seconds.

For those unfamiliar with this series, the recordings derive from the collection of Richard Blaine Gardner who was Toscanini’s engineer and editor of choice at RCA Victor. Gardner received the tapes from either Toscanini himself or from the Maestro’s son, Victor. Subsequently Gardner made the recordings available to Richard Caniell who oversaw their restoration. Mr. Caniell says in a brief note accompanying this release that it is uncertain whether the present recordings derive from line-checks or air-checks. His supposition is that the 1942 concert is from an air-check and that its companion derives from a collector’s private disc recording. In general, the CD transfers have been well managed although inevitably some surface noise is audible and some climaxes sound a mite congested.

Apart from the Gershwin items the other pieces may be as unfamiliar to you as they were to me. Actually, I had heard one of the non-standard items before. The work by Loeffler is included in a 1936 Barbirolli reading in the New York Philharmonic’s substantial set, An American Celebration. I’m afraid I found it rather a bore then and Toscanini’s account doesn’t persuade me either. Loeffler, though born in Alsace, spent some of his childhood years in Ukraine (and in Hungary and Switzerland also) before emigrating to the USA in 1881. In this short symphonic poem, composed in 1923, he depicts a variety of things familiar to him from his Ukrainian days including Russian peasant songs, the Yourod’s Litany prayer, fairy tales, dance songs and, at the end, the death of Vasinka, an elderly peasant storyteller. It’s pictorial music and pleasant enough but not desperately memorable, I think, though Toscanini does what he can for it. In fairness to the composer perhaps there is more to this music than I have discerned for it won first prize in 1924 at the Chicago North Shore Festival. This success led to it receiving a première from the Chicago Symphony under Frederick Stock and Stock revived it a few months later. So three major conductors evidently thought it worth an airing.

The Creston piece was new to me but I found it as attractive as those other works of his that have come my way. Our editor, Rob Barnett, who contributes the very useful liner notes, is right to draw attention to the importance that dance played in Creston’s music. This short piece, first heard in 1939, flaunts its dance inspiration. It is a busy, even vehement piece for full orchestra, founded on propulsive rhythms, which are driven on by what I take to be a large-ish percussion section and an orchestral piano. The assertive opening sounds a bit brash in the acoustic of Studio 8H but maybe the composer, who was present for the performance, would not have been displeased. Certainly he must have relished a virtuoso conductor and orchestra expounding his music.

The work by Morton Gould, which I’d not previously heard, was actually receiving its first performance, in the presence of the composer, at this concert. I’ve acquired several other works by Gould in my collection over the years but I’m bound to say that in general, while I find them immaculately crafted and pleasant to listen to none of them has struck me as having a particularly distinctive musical profile. A Lincoln Portrait is no different.

The radio announcer suggests that the structure of Gould’s work might have been inspired by the title of a biography of Lincoln, Prairie Years, War Years. The piece begins with evocative open-air music, not unlike Copland in his Appalachian Spring vein (here surface swishes are rather intrusive, I’m afraid). Various American folk songs are recollected. In the central section, which is more robust, old war songs are quoted in a marching band style before, around 8’27" the music slows again and more old American songs are quoted, this time with more vigour than at the very beginning before a tranquil, string-dominated close which seems to bring the music back full circle. Though technically very assured it’s all rather homespun and didn’t lodge in my memory, I fear. Incidentally, at 5’42", just where the central section begins, there’s what, after several hearings, I can only think is a momentary dropout in the recording but it only lasts for about a bar’s length.

The highlight of this concert must have been the performance of the Gershwin Rhapsody. The soloist was the young American virtuoso, Earl Wild, just a few weeks shy of his twenty-seventh birthday. Another celebrated American musician was involved too, for the announcer tells us that he has spied the "smiling countenance" of Benny Goodman in the ranks of the orchestra. Apparently the Maestro himself had invited him to play the first clarinet part. Goodman launches the work stylishly although there’s an unfortunate cracked note right at the end of his solo. Actually, I wonder if Goodman’s real value was a bit more discreet? A bit later on the rhythms around 3’47" are a little foursquare, though the NBC brass, like all good American brass players, can bend the notes well enough, but there in the background you can distinctly hear Goodman’s idiomatically wailing clarinet egging them on. Perhaps his presence in the ranks fired the other players.

It has to be said that Toscanini’s rhythms can seem a little plain but this, I suspect, may be less to do with an unidiomatic approach from him and more to do with the difficulties of getting a full orchestra to swing. We should remember that the work was then only 18 years old so a performing tradition was still being established. By the late twentieth century the demands of modern composers had made orchestral musicians incomparably more flexible but in the 1940s it can’t have been easy for the NBC players, or any of their peers, to switch from, say, Grieg to Gershwin. It’s interesting to read two contemporary critiques of this concert that are reproduced in the booklet. In the New York Times Olin Downes avers, rather portentously, "the Maestro might have spent his life with the denizens of Tin Pan Alley for any backwardness that he showed in his comprehension of an apparent enthusiasm for the American idiom." However, an anonymous reviewer in Musical America in an evident oblique reference to Toscanini commented "Mr. Wild, wearing a Navy uniform, all but stole the show with his spectacular playing in those episodes that permitted him to go his own (and Gershwin’s) way."

I’d certainly agree that Wild gives a pretty fine performance. However, despite his extravagantly gifted pianism his reading here is not as spontaneous as I’ve heard from others. This may be indicative of a lack of rapport with his conductor. Just as likely a cause, however, is a lack of adequate rehearsal time due to wartime contingencies. No matter, he displays great virtuosity with athletic fingerwork and rhythmic flexibility. The romantic "big tune" (at 10’38"), though perhaps a touch broad for some tastes, is given the full treatment by all concerned.

There’s more Gershwin in the second concert and that programme also contains a substantial rarity in the shape of Festa das igrejas by the Brazilian composer, Francesco Mignone. This work, the Portuguese title of which I think roughly translates as "Festival of Churches" was another recent composition at the time, having been begun in 1939. The announcer tells the audience that the piece is a "Symphonic Impression of four old Brazilian churches." More than this I cannot tell you. However the piece, which plays continuously is a most effective one. It is colourful, atmospheric and resourcefully orchestrated for what sounds like a large band (including, at the end, an organ; here a most egregious and synthetic electric instrument is used). There’s abundant rhythmic vitality and, to borrow Rob Barnett’s felicitous phrase several "voluptuous eruptions of sound." Mr. Barnett is surely right in pointing out in his notes the similarities with Respighi (and how appropriate, since Mignone was the son of an Italian flautist and spent some years studying in Italy.) The compositional language is firmly tonal but dissonance is employed to good effect. The most substantial section of the piece (between 10’35" and 17’03"), depicting what I take to be the third church, is eerily reminiscent of the Aria from Villa-Lobos’s Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5. The work ends in an exuberant riot of orchestral colour and syncopated rhythms and here the link with Respighi is especially pertinent. I wouldn’t claim this work to be a masterpiece by any means but I enjoyed it very much and am glad to have made its acquaintance. Toscanini and his musicians can be heard to do it proud despite the sonic limitations.

Back to Gershwin for the final item with Oscar Levant (1906-1972) as soloist in the F major Concerto. In the first movement (where surface noise briefly obtrudes into Levant’s first solo) the performance is good (and Levant himself is excellent) but here, more than in the Rhapsody I missed a sense of verve and rhythmic élan, especially in the more up-tempo passages. The last degree of freedom and of buoyancy in the rhythms is lacking though conductor and soloist drive the movement to an exciting conclusion. The famous, evocative trumpet solo in the slow movement (truly, music of The City) is well done though I can’t escape the feeling that other conductors might have encouraged more ‘bending’ of the notes. When he enters Levant is decisive and the quicker central section, which the soloist leads, has a good deal of bounce. The finale is played for all it’s worth and makes for a rousing conclusion. No wonder the audience goes wild. This wouldn’t be a first choice for this concerto but it’s an enjoyable performance with an excellent soloist in Oscar Levant. At the risk of repeating myself, it’s also of documentary importance as a part of the establishment of the performance tradition of this work, which had been written as recently as 1925.

In summary, a fascinating pair of CDs, showing one of the twentieth century’s most celebrated conductors in a less familiar light. The music is uneven in quality but all is worth hearing and the performances are of the high standard you’d expect. The recordings inevitably betray their age but Mr. Caniell and his colleagues have done their considerable best with them and at no time does the recorded sound mar enjoyment to any serious degree. Documentation is up to Guild’s usual high standards.

An issue which all those interested in twentieth century Americana should try to hear and which will be self-recommending to acolytes of Toscanini.

John Quinn

see also review by Jonathan Woolf

 



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