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Arturo Toscanini – All-Debussy
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)

Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune
La mer
La mer in rehearsal
Broadcast commentaries
NBC Symphony Orchestra/Arturo Toscanini
Recorded 13th and 14th October 1953
GUILD GHCD 2271-72 [2 CDs: 78.12 + 67.15]

These performances derive from an NBC broadcast of 14th February 1953 and from the rehearsal the previous day. Significantly they are Toscanini’s last traversals of these works and were recorded in Carnegie Hall, not Studio 8H, greatly to their advantage. La mer is known from Toscanini’s 1950 recording and in truth his conception of it had remained constant barring one of two local adjustments of emphasis and tempo relation. Those who know the live Queen’s Hall 1935 performance the conductor gave with the BBCSO (EMI) will be aware that Toscanini favoured broadly an externalised, brilliantly forward-looking approach, strong on panache and virtuosity, but which could yield expressive results. I tend to find the later performances lacking in humanity and depth but there’s no doubting the power and control. I should say that, infuriatingly, the radio announcer talks over the first couple of bars. It’s also true that this 1953 performance is in more immediate sound than the commercial 1950 RCA disc and that’s another reason to acquaint oneself with this live performance. Other versions do exist of course; Toscanini’s 1940 broadcast from the Rockefeller Centre is on Naxos, coupled with Ibéria and more Debussy besides – though I should say that the 1940 performance hasn’t survived entirely intact and there are some aural distractions and loss of a few bars as well. On balance the 1935 London La mer seems to me the best of the survivors. There’s a 1942 Philadelphia survivor as well but it’s not superior to the London performance.

Ibéria tended to bring out the Toscaninian stops. He rushes to climaxes and the tension engendered is overwhelming but also not entirely free of a degree of artifice. William Youngren notes that this live recording is slightly freer and more flexibly phrased than the commercial recording but I still can’t help but feel that Ibéria was not a work that brought out the best in Toscanini – it tended to bring out extremes. Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune is fast but momentum doesn’t compromise expressive phrasing in this case.

But well over half the set is taken up by rehearsals for La mer given the day before the concert. These are, thankfully, mostly lacking in the usual histrionics, though part of the first track on CD2 features a tiresome rant. Toscanini is laser-eared in matters relating to forte and piano, and is scrupulous about the right-sounding cymbals. For long stretches he plays without stopping; when he does so it’s to insist on wind phrasing or articulation; a mini outburst occurs when he doesn’t get the kind of phrasing he asks for.

Given that ninety out of one hundred and forty-five minutes are devoted to the rehearsals, and given that they don’t much extend our knowledge and appreciation of Toscanini’s working methods beyond those we already know (however interesting it may be to eavesdrop) this leaves one with something of a conundrum when it comes to recommendations. As I say the Queen’s Hall La mer remains my preferred Toscanini interpretation and there are more complexly involving rehearsal sequences elsewhere – as such this must be considered a collectors’ issue, but one that’s extremely well produced and presented.

Jonathan Woolf

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