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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony no.3 in E flat major op.55 Ė "Eroica" (1), Symphony no.5 in C minor op.67 (2)
NBC Symphony Orchestra/Arturo Toscanini
Recorded in the NBC Studio 8-H, New York, October 28th 1939 (1), February 27th, March 1st and 29th 1939 (2)
LIVING ERA AJC 8551 [77:08]


Riveting, thereís no other word for it. And I donít just mean theyíre the fastest and loudest performances ever, if thatís what Toscaniniís reputation means to you.

Itís true that the acoustic is dry Ė forte chords followed by a rest go completely dead. And itís true that the trumpets blare a bit at times, particularly in the Fifth. But these recordings stand out among Toscanini recordings for their faithfulness to his wide range of dynamics. For once you can hear Toscanini performances where it is the pianissimos that impress above all, where the delicate nuances from the strings and wind can really be heard.

The opening of the Fifth (placed first on the record) is surely arresting. But what exquisite handling of the second subject material, and how Toscanini, in spite of his swift speed, seems to have all the time in the world to shape it. And the tension of the performance Ė in this movement and the next Ė lies in the quiet passages which build up inexorably until they just have to explode.

Youíll get a surprise as the finale of this symphony starts Ė a surprisingly slow tempo. The reason for this is that Toscanini knew well that Beethovenís metronome mark for the half-bar is slower than that for the whole bar of the Scherzo. Most other conductors know this, but unless they can get the Scherzo to work at a tempo like Toscaniniís (not many can), it just isnít possible to take a slower tempo for the finale Ė it would be just too slow altogether. The solution of Kapellmeisters like Klemperer and Keilberth was to take the same tempo all through, which was at least better than taking the finale faster, with an attendant drop in tension when the Scherzo material reappears halfway through.

Just to be the devilís advocate, let us admit that the coda of the first movement contains a bit of Toscaniniís over-impatience

As the first movement of the "Eroica" starts, the phrasing is so serene and relaxed you might not even realize how fast Toscanini is actually going. He shapes the whole movement in one gigantic breath. In the "Marche funèbre" his relatively swift tempo means that he doesnít have to speed up for the episodes, so much of this movement actually comes out slower than usual. The tension he screws up becomes almost unbearable.

A whirlwind of a Scherzo Ė but what clarity, what gradation of the softer dynamics. You may notice as never before how little of this movement is actually forte. Again, terrific articulation in the finale, and no loss of tension as the andante section takes over. But let us again admit that he is guilty of a spot of tub-thumping in the coda.

Terrific performances then, set down before Toscaniniís final onslaught of nerves caused him to see everything through a red haze. But donít make them your bread-and-butter listening, or youíll be spoilt for everything else. Take them down when the slack standards and human frailty of most other versions are causing you to lose faith in Beethoven. And above all, if youíre a conductor, donít take them as models. Anybody who tries some of these tempi without Toscaniniís command of phrasing and rhythm is committing kamikaze.

But wait a minute. Are they so very fast? Letís look at some timings.

Symphony no. 3



Böhm (Berlin)

14:40 14:25 05:59 12:24


15:20 13:01 05:54 12:10

Furtwängler (Rome 1952)

16:30 17:35 06:50 12:50
Harnoncourt 15:53R 14:35 05:37 11:27
Keilberth 15:10 14:46 05:59 11:51
Kempe (RPO 1974) 16:20 17:28 05:34 12:39
E. Kleiber (1953) 13:57 15:23 05:28 11:12
Klemperer (1955) 15:54 14:43 06:26 12:25
Kubelik 16:06 17:38 06:17 12:37
Stokowski 15:38 13:59 05:42 11:21
Toscanini (1939) 13:44 16:06 05:14 10:35
Weingartner 14:21 15:11 04:13* 11:32

Symphony no.5
Boult 08:00R 09:17   13:46
Furtwängler (Rome 1952) 08:55R 11:53     15:30
Harnoncourt 07:12R 09:54 08:22R 10:51R 19:13RR
Keilberth 08:43R 10:12 05:59 08:51 14:50
E. Kleiber 07:18R 09:15 05:20 09:25 14:45
Klemperer (1955) 08:05R 10:07 05:41 11:09R 16:50R
Klemperer (c.1960) 08:46R 11:06     19:25R
Koussevitzky (LPO) 08:00R 10:43 05:35 08:53 14:28
Kubelik 08:16R 11:02 05:18 11:10R 16:28R
Toscanini 07:11R 09:31 05:06 08:56 14:02
Weingartner (British SO) 06:36 08:36 05:15 08:46 14:01

R = repeat taken
* = a misleading timing since some repeats are missing

This is not a carefully selected list of the best recordings, theyíre just some I happen to have.

We can see that in three out of four movements of the "Eroica" Toscanini does, in fact, prove the fastest, most nearly approached by Kleiber, although since Harnoncourt gets through the first movement with repeat in the same time it takes Klemperer without, it may be suspected that he is faster still. Certainly, he reduces the music to a meaningless gabble in a way Toscanini does not. What is interesting is that Toscaniniís refusal to move forward in the major key episodes of the "Marche funèbre" results in one of the slowest readings. All those conductors working in the Weingartner or the Kapellmeister tradition Ė Böhm, Boult, Keilberth, Klemperer Ė are noticeably swifter, incredibly so in the case of Boult. The myth of Klempererís slowness is not really born out either, at least in his 1955 readings. Longer timings are to be found from those conductors working within the Wagnerian-Furtwänglerian axis: Furtwängler himself, Kempe and Kubelik. Their romantic-dramatic concept is totally different from Toscaniniís granitic rigour.

In the Fifth, it is only in the first and third movements that Toscanini sees off all comers Ė by one second in the case of Harnoncourtís first movement. Again, he is most closely shadowed by Kleiber. Weingartnerís first movement would have taken 08:16 with the repeat. The interesting thing here is that there isnít really all that much variation between the performances of this movement, discounting the elderly Klempererís massive approach and Furtwänglerís rhetoric which is sui generic. And much of the variation depends, not on the actual tempi but on the interpretation of the various pauses and fermatas, and on how far the second subject is to be relaxed. We may note that Kubelik mainly kept his Furtwänglerian leanings to slow movements.

In the second movement, we again find that the Weingartner tradition gives the lie to the myth of Toscaniniís invariable speeding. Weingartner himself was possibly obliged to squeeze the movement onto two 78 sides, but Boult Ė once again the master of the swift slow movement Ė and Kleiber had no such problems.

In the finale matters are complicated by the fact that several discs only give an overall timing for the third and fourth movements taken together. However, it can be seen that Kleiber, the only other conductor who fully observes the tempo relationship commented upon above, is a shade slower in both these movements, while many of those who opt for a uniform tempo or reverse the indicated relationship have swifter finales than Toscanini. Klempererís 1955 finale, without the repeat, would have come to 09:04, somewhere in between Toscanini and Kleiber; his combined third and fourth movements would then have come to 14:45, exactly the same as Kleiber but differently distributed. A re-sampling of the transition from the third to the fourth movement in Boultís recording suggests that his record-breaking timing is the result of a uniform tempo for the two movements, but a considerably swifter one that that of Klemperer or Keilberth.

In conclusion, then the myth of Toscaniniís manic speeding is proved to be a meaningless simplification of a much more complicated situation. What we can say is that the unremitting tension of his performances, even when not pressed to the manic extremes of his later years, gives them a fiery tautness not matched by any of his competitors, whether they happen to be faster or slower, combined with a control over dynamics and phrasing which can leave other performances sounding distinctly sketchy. In the 1930s he was surely at the height of his powers as a Beethoven interpreter and these performances are surely the greatest possible of their given viewpoint. So utterly gripping are they that even today we have to take a deep breath after listening to them and clear our minds in order to realize that other approaches do have their own validity.

Christopher Howell

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