Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1826)
Symphony No.6 in F major Op.68 Pastoral (1808) [39:11]
NBC Symphony Orchestra/Arturo Toscanini
rec. 5 March 1944, NBC Studio 8H, New York

Pristine Audio puts out single work discs sometimes, so you will need to consult their website for the purchasing options available to you. This one, for instance, has just the Pastoral symphony of Beethoven, which may have you scurrying to avoid this review on the grounds that this is yet another remastering of a New York recording or - if your eyesight is hazy - the old BBC 78 set. Whilst I think it’s true to say life is quite short enough as it is without spending all one’s time listening to multiple recordings of Toscanini’s competing versions of Beethoven symphonies - the same goes for Klemperer’s Eroica, or Furtwängler’s Bruckner - this one does have the virtue of novelty.

This performance derives from a ‘Lira Panamericana’ series of radio transcription discs featuring Toscanini conducting Beethoven. The majority of the cycle comes from Autumn 1944 but this one is earlier, and comes from March. It’s not something you will have heard before and it’s now making its first appearance commercially. It was recorded on wide-groove 33rpm vinyl discs and 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. These facts come from Pristine’s website to which I’m indebted for the background information. So if you have to hand your 1937 BBC recording [Naxos 8.110877] or the 1939 NBC [Music & Arts 1203 - part of the complete cycle] or the familiar 1952 NBC you’ll doubtless want to know in what way this particular performance compares and contrasts.

Obviously this performance shares with the other New York ones an advantage over the BBC inasmuch as there he jettisoned the first movement repeat. Otherwise there is really very little to choose between any of these earlier performances. Along with the Eroica it was his most performed Beethoven symphony. The post-war recording is a known disappointment, and we can leave it to one side. The best wind playing comes from the BBC Orchestra, which has the warmest string playing as well. In this Lira Panamericana however the sound is really first class and sonic improvements have clearly been carried out with discretion. Musically I do find some of the horn-pointing a touch blatant but what’s not in doubt is the orchestral excellence nor the sheer consistency (not rigidity) of Toscanini’s approach to the work in these years. What differs is the level of intensity of orchestral execution. It’s high here, splendidly so, with a predictably devastating storm and a mellifluous but unindulgent finale.

This newly transferred series is shaping up to complement the live 1939 cycle on M&A. Toscanini mavens must be prepared to do some discographic sifting to see if this is all too much of a good thing.

Jonathan Woolf