Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891 – 1953)
Symphony No.1 in D, Classical, op.25 (1916/1917) [13:53]
Claude DEBUSSY (1862 – 1918)
Ibéria (from Images) (1905/1908) [18:29]
Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835 – 1921)
Danse Macabre, op.40 (1875) [7:33]
Richard STRAUSS (1864 – 1949)
Don Juan, op.20 (1888) [17:41]
NBC Symphony Orchestra/Arturo Toscanini
rec. live, 25 March 1950, NBC Studio 8H, Rockefeller Center, New York City. ADD

This disc is taken from an off-air recording of a live Saturday concert in New York. We have Ben Grauer, the radio announcer, introducing the music, and the audience’s applause. There is a real sense of a live event, so clear is the recorded sound.

We start with a very hard-driven, rather unsympathetic, account of Prokofiev’s delightful Classical Symphony. The outer movements are very fast indeed, which is surely not what the composer wanted, and the middle movements lack charm and poise. Debussy’s Ibéria fares somewhat better but one has the feeling that all is not well at times; there is a moment in the first movement where the sound is so muddy that it’s impossible to tell if the orchestra is together or not. It passes quickly but it is disturbing. This is a typical Toscanini performance – hard-driven, unsympathetic, a total lack of sexual tension in the middle movement – Perfumes in the Night – and a too fast tempo almost throughout.

Strangely, Toscanini directs a quite good performance of Saint-Saëns’ witty Danse Macabre, even though it is almost entirely without wit. But there is a lightness, and a sprightliness about it which is quite infectious. It still won’t supersede Martinon or Ansermet, who are streets ahead when it comes to understanding exactly how to perform this music.

Strauss’s Don Juan receives the best interpretation for here Toscanini can turn on his Italianate lovers’ charm and race through the various escapades as if he were always fleeing the clutches of boyfriends and cuckolded husbands … as well as having a good time on the way! Good though this is, Toscanini is no Kempe, or Reiner and thus the performance, seen in the light of the other two great Straussians, obviously isn’t as good as one first thought.

Dedicated Toscanini fans will find this disc essential listening but it is really only for the converted, because here is Toscanini’s Classical and Symphony, Toscanini’s Ibéria and frankly I’d rather hear Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony and so on. I can understand why Toscanini is so highly prized – these are very exciting and well disciplined performances, but there is little warmth and there seems to be a total lack of sympathy with most of the music. By the end I was reaching for recordings by Bruno Walter, Kempe and others, just for the element of humanity in their interpretations.

The transfer is stunning; it’s hard to believe that this is a 60 year old recording. If Toscanini’s your bag then this is for you. If you prefer more thoughtful music-making go elsewhere.

Bob Briggs