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Toscanini. The Maestro
Narration in English with optional French and German subtitles
DVD Video Disc Format 4:3 PAL [97’46"]
Bonus Audio CD
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN

Symphony No 5 in C minor, Op. 67 – I: Allegro con brio [7’14"]
Symphony No 1 in C major, Op. 21 – III: Menuetto [3’25"]
Giuseppi VERDI Nabucco: Va pensiero* [4’58"]
Johannes BRAHMS Symphony No 1 in C minor, Op. 68 – III:Un poco allegretto e grazioso [4’30"]
Giuseppi VERDI La forza del destino – Overture [7’06"]
Johannes BRAHMS Symphony No 2 in D major, Op. 73 – II: Adagio non troppo [8’30"]
Giacomo ROSSINI Il barbiere di Siviglia – Overture [7’04"]
Richard WAGNER Die Walküre – Ride of the Valkyries [5’00"
*Westminster Choir
NBC Symphony Orchestra/Arturo Toscanini
Recording dates & venues not specified
BMG RCA RED SEAL 82876 58242 9 [48’09"]

This DVD and Audio double pack is released in BMG’s ‘Legendary Visions’ series. The main element is a substantial filmed documentary about the life of Toscanini, written by one of his distinguished biographers, Harvey Sachs. The American conductor, James Levine, is described as the Host of this production and he pops up from time to time to offer brief reflections on the Maestro’s career.

I think it would probably be fair to say that the film breaks no new ground in its depiction of Toscanini’s musical life. What we get is a straightforward, sensible biographical outline. The commentary stresses Toscanini’s life-long obsession with high musical standards; though perhaps it infers a bit too much that he was a lone standard bearer in this respect. Very fairly and rightly it emphasises his principled stance against Fascism.

Among the recollections from contemporaries are contributions from Jarmila Novotna, who sang for him at the pre-war Salzburg Festivals, and from the distinguished American singer, Robert Merrill. These recollections are fascinating as are those of other leading singers. However, what particularly stood out for me were the memories of several orchestral musicians who played under the Maestro’s baton in the NBC Symphony Orchestra. In particular they lay stress on Toscanini’s stick technique. It’s interesting to learn that he was given to big gestures in rehearsal, where the real work was done, but that by and large these gestures were eschewed in performance for fear they might distract the audience. There are also some very interesting contributions from Toscanini’s grandson, Walfredo Toscanini.

All in all I’d say that this film presents a good, rounded and thorough portrait of one of the towering musical figures of the last century. The still photographs and filmed extracts, mainly in black and white, but some in colour, are well chosen. The film contains a full performance of Verdi’s egregious Hymn of the Nations. Despite the pleasure of Jan Peerce’s ringing tenor solos I think just an extract would have been sufficient.

The accompanying audio CD offers some very representative examples of Toscanini’s studio work with the NBC Symphony. All the music comes from his core repertoire and the chosen pieces show the Maestro at the height of his very considerable powers. I think I’d heard all the performances before but I enjoyed everything. I particularly relished his powerful account of the overture to La forza del destino where he conducts Verdi’s singing lines incomparably but invests the dramatic sections with real bite and tension.

The drawback to this valuable set is the deplorable documentation. The booklet, if one may use that term, consists of nothing but the Italian text of Hymn of the Nations accompanied by a poor English translation plus translations in French and German. Why was no text or translation of Va pensiero provided? Just as serious is the lack of any significant documentation about the film itself (when was it made, for instance?) or about such matters as the dates of the audio recordings. This is a regrettable omission. So far as I can tell, in the absence of any information to the contrary, the DVD is not separated into sections; one really has to watch the film in its entirety. I didn’t find that a hardship at all but it would be nice to have the facility to sample brief extracts if necessary.

However, the set is very valuable nonetheless and I believe it presents a good visual and audio portrait of this great conductor.

John Quinn

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