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CD/Download: Pristine Classical

Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67 [28:16]
NBC Symphony Orchestra/Arturo Toscanini
rec. ‘live’, Carnegie Hall, New York, 18 April 1944
Lira Panamericana 40cm vinyl radio transcription disc, sides 68B and 69B
Matrix Nos: ND5-MM4343-1 and ND5-MM4545-1
Source disc from the collection of Christophe Pizzutti:
Transfer and XR remastering by Andrew Rose at Pristine Audio, June 2009
Experience Classicsonline

Goodness knows how many recorded performances of this symphony by Toscanini exist in the CD catalogue. This one, however, is something of a rarity and Pristine Audio claims it as “restored and release for the first time”.

Its origins are interesting, as related on Pristine Audio’s website. There we read that ‘Toscanini began a "Beethoven Festival" series of NBC broadcasts later in the autumn of 1944, and these were also recorded for special distribution to South American radio by NBC - specially pressed on outsized 15.8" vinyl discs, cut at 33rpm but using conventional wide-groove 78rpm cutters (i.e. not microgroove), each side could hold around 15-20 minutes of music with an extended frequency range significantly higher than that expected of standard commercial 78rpm discs at the time.’ Only two sets of the discs are thought to survive, we are told, and I’ve included in the heading to this review the source details for this transfer since it is apparently so rare.

The performance is typical of Toscanini in this work: heroic, fiery, often driven, blazing with conviction. One drawback, which may be a major one for some, is that he omits the exposition repeat in the first movement. I suspect this was due to the exigencies of broadcasting but it’s regrettable for it reduces the first movement to 5:48 in total and rather unbalances the work as a whole.

The first movement is dramatic and delivered with great punch. Some may find it too fierce but the strength of Toscanini’s conviction is highly persuasive. The second movement is interpreted with what I’d term tense lyricism and the spectral passages of the third movement come across very well. Toscanini handles the transition from III to IV masterfully and then the finale blazes excitingly. Toscanini omits the exposition repeat in this movement also but he and his orchestra sweep all before them in an heroic and exhilarating reading.

The playing of the NBC Symphony is superb. The players meet every demand placed on them by the maestro. And the orchestra is reproduced in pretty good sound. True, the bass can boom a little at times but I found the sound to be perfectly acceptable. Those collectors who are allergic to the acoustics of NBC’s Studio 8H will note - with relief, no doubt - that this performance took place in the kinder acoustic of Carnegie Hall.

Unsurprisingly, Pristine Audio have made something of the fact that this performance is otherwise unavailable to collectors. However, its rarity is only part of the story. It’s a considerable musical experience in its own right. Naturally, devotees of Toscanini will want to add this recording to their collection and it’s well worth investigation by the more general collector also, especially as Pristine’s transfer is excellent.

John Quinn 


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