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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
CD 1
Symphonies: No. 1 in C, Op. 21 (1800) [23:17]
No. 3 in E flat, Op. 55, “Eroica”(1803) [45:43].
CD 2
Symphonies: No. 2 in D, Op. 36(1801) [32:25]
No. 4 in B flat, Op. 60(1806) [34:13]
Overture, Leonore No. 3, Op. 72b (1805) [13:26].
CD 3
Symphonies: No. 6 in F, Op. 68, “Pastoral” (1808) [41:35]
No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67 (1807) [30:15].
CD 4
Egmont Overture, Op. 84 (1809) [8:43]
Leonore Overture No. 1, Op. 138 (1807) [8:29]
Symphonies: No. 7 in A, Op. 92 (1812) [32:48]
No. 8 in F, Op. 93 (1812) [24:49].
CD 5
Leonore No. 2, Op . 72a (1805) [13:30]
Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125, “Choral” (1824) [61:13].
Jarmila Novotna (soprano); Kerstin Thorberg (mezzo); Jan Peerce (tenor); Nicola Moscona (bass); Westminster Choir.
NBC Symphony Orchestra/Arturo Toscanini
rec. 1939 (see end of review for specific dates & venues) .
MUSIC & ARTS CD-1203 [5 CDs: 70:00 + 79:49 + 71:22 + 76:01 + 75:26]
Experience Classicsonline

This is by no means the first incarnation of these performances. On CD, Nuova Era, Naxos - who included the broadcast introductions - and Relief have all issued them. All first movement repeats are honoured save for the “Eroica” and the Seventh.
 
It is important to remember that, early though the recording date is, Toscanini had been conducting these scores for some time. The events over in Europe around 1939, too, inevitably had some influence in the shaping of these accounts.
 
This is the second recording of Beethoven First under Toscanini; the older one is with the BBCSO in Queen’s Hall, London in 1937. The slow introduction begins in expansive style, with Toscanini digging for depths most conductors do not even look for. The Allegro con brio, whilst sprightly, includes a resolute determination that ignites the musical surface. Even contrasting subjects are reluctant to smile. The second movement is gentile but not actually relaxed. Toscanini seems intent on not letting us forget the tensile surrounding movements. Gritty is the mot juste for the “Menuetto” - generally described as a Scherzo in all but name – here there is no doubt whatsoever of the music’s demonic side. Violin articulation in the finale is exemplary. Toscanini takes a speed that for many orchestras would lead to chaos, but here the result is miraculously exciting, dynamic and reflecting the essence of young man’s music.
 
The recording is still dry - this is Studio 8H after all - but is not uncomfortable, thanks to the “new digital transfers using the revolutionary harmonic process”. Those comments remain true for the rest of the set. The transfer process cannot put in what was not there - so the dryness is inevitable - but it can make them more listenable.
 
The Second Symphony is the earliest Toscanini version we have of this masterpiece. Wind contributions in particular are noteworthy in a first movement of elemental drive. Toscanini’s infamous discipline pays dividends in the violin/flute exchanges in the latter stages of the first movement. Toscanini eschews a prayer-like stance for the beautiful Larghetto - importantly, it is easy to feel it in the designated 3/8 time-signature. His rather severe take may be felt by some to be contra the music’s inherent Gemütlichkeit. A pity the horns are so recessed - shortly before the ten minute mark - for their important passage. The fast and furious Scherzo reveals how fierce the recording can still be, though; the very final bars stand as testimony to this. In compensation comes the concentration and sheer vitality of Toscanini’s way with Beethoven’s finale.
 
The dryness of the acoustic robs the opening chordal gestures of the “Eroica” of their grandeur. It’s the second of Toscanini’s “Eroica” recordings; the first dates from December 1938, same orchestra, same venue. We hear instead Toscanini the man-in-a-hurry, eager to get on. Only as the movement progresses does the fire accumulate. Ensemble, however, is miraculous and detail is magnificent. The clarity of the second horn solo just before the recapitulation proper is wonderful. Many will miss affection in this reading of the first movement. Toscanini’s idea of “give” was less than most - but note that there is the occasional touch of string portamento. Unanimity of attack from the strings proves key in the Marcia funèbre; heard like this, one becomes aware of just how approximate much “togetherness” in ensemble is. Violin lines can sing, in Italianate style - and therefore not in true Beethovenian fashion - yet incongruities cease to matter in a reading of such concentration as this. Only Furtwängler, surely, can match some of the ferocious anger that appears here. The fragmenting of the theme in the movement’s final stages is clearly perfectly rehearsed, the nuances being voiced as one. Horns sound, in this acoustic, rough rather than rustic in the third movement Trio, but there is plenty of energy, an energy that extends into the finale, where counterpoint is preternaturally rigorous. Even the final return to a slower tempo includes little sense of relief.
 
This Fourth is actually the third recording we have chronologically. An account from February 1936 is available, but only to my knowledge in a Japanese issue; there is also one from June 1939, with the BBCSO. The very opening of this November 1939  Fourth may cause you to look up and consider reassessing the piece. Toscanini builds the opening right up from the very bass as if considering some primal imagery. Registral gaps between parts in this introduction seem heightened; Dyment’s notes refer to a “world in microcosm” here, and he is not exaggerating. Ensemble is slightly slack from the violins in the main body of the first movement but dynamism is there throughout, perhaps too much so, for Toscanini borders on the unyielding. The slow movement, too, leads to a climax that is roughly recorded and rather brash. Congestion mars the “Menuetto” - actually a frenzied Scherzo here - and the finale.
 
Again, there are precursors to this Fifth – this is actually the fourth chronologically. The opening of Toscanini’s Fifth metaphorically takes one by the scruff of the neck. It is hardly less arresting when Toscanini takes the exposition repeat. For the second subject, the tempo bends slightly, just as it does for the heavy chords around the 3:50 mark. The first movement moves inexorably; the second deliberately eschews any real sense of repose - ensemble is slightly skewed towards the very end. The disquiet is confirmed by the third movement. Cellos and double-basses less scamper, more machine-gun their way through, and so it is that this energy suffuses the finale. Against Furtwängler’s titanic struggle articulated through large-scale harmonic process - Furtwängler freely acknowledged his debt to Schenker - Toscanini offers an unstoppable trajectory determined by momentum.
 
The “Pastoral” was a Toscanini favourite. It featured in his programmes between 1897 and 1954 more than any other. It was perhaps an unlikely choice for one who could be considered rather forceful in his approach.  Here the dryness of the acoustic takes most casualties in terms of robbed atmosphere, but Toscanini’s interpretation remains notable. His orchestra is on absolute top form here, with wind soloists deserving special mention; just listen to the bird imitations at the end of the slow movement. The storm is graphically drawn; but the very close is perfunctory. Tension informs the Seventh, though, a reading of sinewy strength. The first movement seems unstoppable, firing its way through on all cylinders to the final bars with their blaring horns. The initial respite of the Allegretto seems Heaven-sent, but it is short-lived, with its climax hinting at the hell-for-leather energy of the Scherzo and the Finale.
 
Toscanini’s bright and brusque approach suits the first movement of the Eighth - the fourth we have from him. Ensemble in the first movement is miraculous, but the wind are not given enough licence to bring character to their solos. If the louder sections of the Tempo di menuetto suffer from sonic harshness, the horns of the Trio offer plenty of succour – a real highlight. The finale is relentless and fierce though.
 
Unlike the other symphonies, the Ninth was taken down in Carnegie Hall, in tandem with Toscanini’s only performance of the Choral Fantasy (Ania Dorfmann was the pianist: available on Naxos 8.110824 and Music & Arts 259). The first movement really is an Allegro, with none too much of the “ma non troppo” about it. Yet it is never inchoate; just the opposite, in fact. The argument is tightly packed. The air positively fizzes in the effortlessly controlled pianissimos, while the tightly-controlled Scherzo spits fire. The slow movement appears almost redemptive. Strings seem to seek to portray a halo in sound; contrasting episodes seem more than usually related to the “Pastoral” symphony.
 
The finale, though, opens like an Urschrei from the bowels of Hades itself, an impression continued by furioso lower string recitatives. The first appearance of the “Freude” theme is less a flowering followed by woodwind and timpani approval, more a battering into our consciousness. This is no easy journey to the Elysian Fields. The wind statement of this theme about five minutes in blazes with defiance, enabling the soloist’s plea, “O Freunde, nicht diese Töne” to make perfect sense in a way it simply doesn’t in most conductors’ hands. Moscona is firm and full of voice. The Westminster Choir is in fine form, lusty and keen. The contrast after “… vor Gott” is stark and yet here it seems the only way forward. Toscanini has taken us to a brick wall, and the only way past is around it. Toscanini presents Beethoven’s counterpoint starkly – there is no doubting the Third Period-ness of this work.
 
Tenor Jan Peerce is also in commanding form, and the four soloists work remarkably well together as an integrated group towards the end of the symphony.
 
There are “extras”. The Egmont is given a gripping performance, almost demonic in impact. Unfortunately the horns lack impact in their statement of the important triple-time rhythm, robbing this passage of true force. Nevertheless, the coda, the ‘battle’ music, blazes brightly. Good to have all three Leonore Overtures. The first, recorded a week after the Egmont, is of sinewy strength and huge propulsive force. Toscanini makes us hear the work anew, but it does not blaze quite so much as the breathtaking Leonore No. 2. On this set, Leonore No. 2 prefaces the Ninth Symphony – and it is a measure of the stature of the performance that its placing seems just right. Finally comes the third Leonore: cohesive, concentrated and vividly alive with miraculously together strings and blaring horns in the rapid-fire coda.
 
An interesting suggestion for a Beethovenian supplement to this might come in the shape of a Naxos Historical disc that includes a couple of movements from the Op. 135 string quartet played by the NBCSO, again in Studio 8H (recorded 8 March 1938). With Toscanini one can go on seemingly forever with alternative readings of the symphonies. The present set is, though, a remarkable testament to Toscanini and well worth the investment.
 
Colin Clarke


Recording details
Venues
Studio 8H: all except Symphony 9
Carnegie Hall: Symphony 9

Dates (all 1939)
October 28: Symphony 1
November 4: Symphonies 2 & 4, Leonore 3
November 11: Symphonies 5 & 6
November 18: Symphony 7, Egmont
November 25: Symphony 8, Leonore 1 & 2
December 2: Symphony 9

 


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