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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
the bowels of Hades itself, an impression continued by furioso
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
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
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
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.
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
Symphony 7, Egmont
November 25: Symphony 8, Leonore 1 & 2
December 2: Symphony 9