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In Memory of Arturo Toscanini
Complete 1957 Symphony of the Air concert
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony no.3 in E flat, op.55 (Eroica), (1804) [48:49]
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
La Mer (1905) [24:10]
Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Enigma Variations (1899) [27:42]
Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Nutcracker suite, op.71a (1892) [21:14]
Overture [3:06]
March [2:25]
Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy [1:40]
Russian trepak [1:08]
Arabian dance [3:55]
Chinese dance [1:06]
Dance of the reed flutes [2:17]
Waltz of the flowers [5:37]
Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869)
Overture The Roman Carnival, op.9 (1843) [8:18]
Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Prelude Die Meistersinger (1868) [9:16]
Symphony of the Air/Bruno Walter (Beethoven)
Symphony of the Air/Charles Munch (Debussy)
Symphony of the Air/Pierre Monteux (Elgar)
Symphony of the Air/conductor-less (Tchaikovsky, Berlioz and Wagner)
rec. Carnegie Hall, New York, 3 February 1957 (Beethoven, Debussy and Elgar); unspecified venue, 21 September 1954 (Tchaikovsky, Berlioz and Wagner)
MUSIC & ARTS MACD1201 [74:06 + 67:48] 


Experience Classicsonline

On 4 April 1954 Arturo Toscanini gave his final public concert with the orchestra that had been especially created for him by the American broadcasting network NBC. He died less than three years later on 16 January 1957. The following month saw the memorial concert recorded on this disc, given by the Symphony of the Air (Toscanini’s old NBC orchestra but since gone freelance and renamed). Sharing duties on the podium were three guest conductors of the highest profile, all Europeans who, like Toscanini himself, had spent much of their careers conducting US orchestras.

I imagine that it was a difficult situation for Walter, Munch and Monteux. All were to conduct pieces that Toscanini had loved and of which he had made acclaimed recordings. So how ought they to approach the task? Should they to attempt to replicate the typical Toscanini fingerprints that made his accounts of these scores so distinctive and unforgettable? Or was the best way of paying tribute to the late maestro to offer up their own personal interpretations instead? 

Each was working with Toscanini’s old orchestra that he had rigorously honed to the highest degree of virtuosity during 15 years at the helm. And, given that the Symphony of the Air had suffered surprisingly few personnel changes in the process of going independent, it would be quite surprising if the guest conductors’ performances were also not at least slightly influenced thereby. But, as one might expect with experienced conductors of this calibre, each still had a distinctive way of paying personal tribute and one of the most interesting aspects of these discs lies in seeing exactly how each man chose to do so. 

It is instructive, for instance, to compare this Eroica with the studio recording that Bruno Walter made just two years later with the Columbia Symphony Orchestra, a pick-up band with many members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic in its ranks. The broader differences are quite marked, with the earlier memorial account far leaner and livelier. The 1959 studio performance is more elegant, restrained and generally mellow and, while it is true that Walter had suffered a major heart attack between the two performances, his even older recorded accounts from the 1940s are similar in approach to 1959’s. Thus the 1957 memorial concert Eroica is clearly the odd one out. Getting down to more specific details, in 1957 Walter was to incorporate a number of characteristic Toscanini fingerprints along with plenty of his own (both categories are thoroughly listed in expert commentator Harris Goldsmith’s fascinating booklet notes). But, once again, those Toscanini-isms are unique to 1957 and had disappeared by 1959.

La Mer was, without question, a Toscanini favourite. From 1926 until his retirement he conducted it more than any other piece of music – 32 times with the New York Philharmonic, 18 with his NBC orchestra, three times with the Philadelphia Orchestra, twice with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and once with the Vienna Philharmonic. It was therefore an obvious choice for the 1957 memorial concert. Surviving recordings document how Toscanini’s approach to La Mer became somewhat broader and more deliberate in his later years. Charles Munch’s interpretation, meanwhile, was moving in parallel, with even greater increases in timings for each movement between, say, his sprightly Paris Conservatoire Orchestra recording of 1942 and his well-known 1956 studio recording with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. But, as the following statistics make very clear, Munch’s generally slower tempi for the Toscanini memorial concert were even more marked:


Toscanini, Philadelphia Orchestra, 1942

Toscanini, NBC SO, 1950

Munch, Boston SO, 1956

Munch, Symphony of the Air, 1957

1. De l’aube midi sur la mer


8:41 (6.3% longer than 1942)


9:18 (7.5% longer than 1956)

2. Jeux des vagues


6:37 (4.4% longer than 1942)


6:50 (7.5% longer than 1956)

3. Dialogue du vent et de la mer


7:48 (2% longer than 1942)


8:02 (1.5% longer than 1956)

The interesting point here is that, if Munch had given the same performance at the memorial concert that he’d given in the recording studio the previous year, he would actually have been far closer to the timings of Toscanini’s own La Mer in the 1950s. It is almost as though that, by slowing down even more in 1957 than he had done in 1956, he was acknowledging the spirit of the late maestro’s music making rather than its precise letter. Thus, thanks again to the existence of a relatively contemporaneous studio performance, Munch can be seen giving - like Bruno Walter - a Toscanini memorial performance that he makes strikingly and appropriately different from the one he was wont to give elsewhere at the time. 

That brings us to Pierre Monteux and the Enigma Variations. Elgar himself set down a benchmark interpretation with the London Symphony Orchestra in 1926. It is relatively urgent, fleet of foot and utterly unsentimental (even though the LSO violins’ portamento can misleadingly create an impression to the contrary). Toscanini’s performance of 1953 offers a similarly brisk account. Monteux, though, appearing to pander less to the expectations of the 1957 memorial concert than either Walter or Munch, offers us a distinct, individual reading of his own, well up there in impact and memorability – though understandably not in recording quality – with his much acclaimed Decca studio recording with the LSO. Nimrod, appropriately enough, clocks in at a very mournful 3:51 on this occasion, compared with 3:16 for Toscanini in 1950 and a mere 2:53 for the composer himself. Any similarity to Toscanini in this performance comes, as Harris Goldsmith suggests, primarily from hearing what was essentially still the old NBC Symphony Orchestra playing once again in the familiar acoustic of Carnegie Hall. 

Finally we come to the extras – Tchaikovsky, Berlioz and Wagner recorded in early (but good) stereo sound by the Symphony of the Air after Toscanini’s retirement but while he was still alive. These performances were set down a month before the works were repeated at the orchestra’s inaugural public concert and were similarly given without a conductor (concertmaster Daniel Guilet took charge of ensuring co-ordinated tempi). I enjoyed these recordings a great deal. Even though the conductor-less approach can understandably lead to rather stately tempi at times, with Nuremburg’s burghers appearing to be even more musically pompous than usual, we are still obviously in the presence of a great and still very capable orchestra. It is therefore sad to note that, in spite of going on to work with many top-flight conductors and soloists, the Symphony of the Air was pretty quickly crippled by debt and folded within a decade of its foundation. 

Many commentators would claim that music-making in the USA was at a peak in the 1950s. It is certainly true that there were many other conductors – Szell, Reiner and Stokowski, to name a putative second trio – who could have given no doubt equally commanding performances in memory of their great peer. This very enjoyable disc, in surprisingly good sound, thus offers an excellent commemoration not only of the great Arturo Toscanini himself but also of a great era of music-making.

Rob Maynard


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