The first question that goes through my mind
with Toscanini reissues concerns the quality of the sound, or
to be more accurate, how comfortable is it to listen to at length.
A warning on the outer cover states that “these are rare live
recordings from second generation transcriptions which have been
re-mastered to a high standard; however some patches of noise,
dropouts and distortion remain”. This is perhaps excessively fair
to the listener as, taken as a whole, the quality of the sound
as re-mastered by Peter Reynolds is more than adequate to appreciate
the quality of the performances. There are a few uncomfortable
moments, chiefly in respect of distortion, but by the time these
are reached the performances had gripped to such an extent that
these blemishes were of no consequence to me. Curiously one of
the least comfortable is the most recent recording - the “Italian”
Symphony, but even there the fierceness which once seemed an inevitable
part of Toscanini recordings has been substantially tamed.
It is however the performances that matter, and taken as a whole they more than justify the care taken over the re-mastering. In brief, Toscanini manages for the most part to combine urgency, clarity and eloquence in just the right combination to bring out the character of the music. To be sure, it is not the whole of that character – there is a lack of the kind of affectionate and easeful approach that is certainly an important part of it – but it is never merely comfortable or routine, a common danger in performances of these works. What surprised me was how flexible Toscanini is in matters of rhythm and phrasing. The “Scottish” Symphony is the best example of this, at such moments as the introduction to the first movement, or the end of the third movement. Not demonstrative flexibility certainly, but neither is it the kind of bandmasterish approach of which critics used to accuse the conductor. Speeds throughout tend to be fast, but no more so than many conductors employ nowadays, and always within the bounds of legitimate interpretation of tempo directions or metronome marks. These are exhilarating performances, full of energy and eloquence.
The violins are directed to play staccato at the start of the “Midsummer Night’s Dream” Overture, and usually this is interpreted to give a kind of feathery lightness to the music, conjuring up pictures of the delicate fairies found in many nineteenth century pictures. As heard here, however, the notes are certainly short but also fierce, even threatening, more akin to the fairies of Britten’s opera than those we are used to. This may be simply an effect of the recording but it made me think again about the music and its character, as indeed did the majority of these performances.
Helpful and interesting notes by Robert Matthew-Walker explain that the discs contain concert recordings of virtually every work by the composer that Toscanini conducted in the USA. Thus they supplement the commercial recordings, in particular in respect of the Violin Concerto with Heifetz as a soloist unruffled by the fast speeds and apparently using the same violin that David used at the work’s first performance. It is however possible that Mr Matthew-Walker was not given the final list of the contents of the discs as he explains both the importance of the first movement repeat in the “Italian” Symphony and that Toscanini included it only in his 1938 recorded concert which it is therefore of the greatest interest to hear. I entirely share his view on the importance of the repeat (which involves 23 bars of music not heard if it is omitted) and would have loved to have heard the earlier performance, especially given the poor recording quality on the 1954 performance that is included. Perhaps it can be included on a later disc with the String Octet and the wind arrangement of its Scherzo both of which are omitted from this set.
This is self-evidently not for those wanting well recorded modern versions of these works, but it is a fascinating supplement to other versions of them. The urgency and care of the performances helps us to understand more fully Mendelssohn’s genius and a similar care over their restoration allow us to hear them in acceptable sound.