Arturo Toscanini - Gala Concert 1945
Franz Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809) Symphony No. 101 in D major, The Clock [26:20]
Ottorino RESPIGHI (1879-1936) Pini di Roma [20:33]
Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957) The Swan of Tuonela [9:47]
Richard WAGNER (1813-1883) Siegfried’s Funeral March Götterdämmerung, Act III [12:55]
Carl Maria von WEBER (1786-1826) Overture: Euryanthe [8:38]
Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra of New York/Arturo Toscanini
rec. Gala Concert for the Benefit Pension Fund, Carnegie Hall, New York, 13 January (?), 1945
GUILD GHCD 2368 [78:32]

Guild have issued a large number of Toscanini recordings but this one is of uncommon interest. It documents one of the maestro’s relatively few appearances with the Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra of New York (hereinafter, for ease of reference, the PSONY) since resigning as their Principal Conductor in 1936.

As Robert Matthew-Walker relates in his very interesting booklet note, it turned out to be his last appearance with the orchestra. Before going any further, I ought to say that I think Guild are in error in giving the date of the concert as 13 November 1945 in their track-listing. Mr Matthew-Walker says several times in his note that the concert took place in January, though he doesn’t give an exact date. I’ve also read elsewhere an on-line appraisal of this disc by the American critic, Mortimer H Frank, who knows a thing or two about Toscanini. He states that the concert took place on 13 January 1945. I’m inclined to back the judgement of these two well-informed writers.

Toscanini’s choice of music for the concert programme is an intriguing one for it replicates exactly his very first concert with the PSONY on 14 January 1926 – which included the American premičre of Pini di Roma. Toscanini was to repeat this programme in its entirety at his very last concert with the orchestra before leaving their podium in 1936.

The programme plays to many of the strengths of both Toscanini and the orchestra. Indeed, though the sound has some inevitable limitations, one can still tell that the playing is superb. The Respighi piece, for example, receives a splendid performance. ‘I pini di Villa Borghese’ is full of sparkling colour; this is a performance of great virtuosity. Toscanini achieves a brooding intensity at the start of ‘Pini presso una catacomba’ and when the skies lighten (2:07 – 3:23) the playing has great refinement before the conductor builds the final climax masterfully. In ‘I pini della Via Appia’ Toscanini may not be as implacable as Reiner in his great 1959 Chicago studio account but he builds great cumulative power in a hugely impressive performance. No wonder the audience goes wild.

The Swan of Tuonela is also superbly played. This performance is of great yet unforced intensity. The Wagner is interesting, not least because Toscanini begins this ‘bleeding chunk’ rather earlier than one is accustomed to hear in a concert version and the familiar concert extract begins 4:18 into this performance. Robert Matthew-Walker rightly draws particular attention to the quality of the playing in this item. There’s nobility as well as sorrow and power in Toscanini’s eloquent interpretation.

I wondered what the Haydn symphony performance would be like and, in truth, I feared it might be a little lacking in charm but I was wrong. There’s a Beethovenian tension in the introduction to I, which is given spacious treatment by Toscanini. However, the main allegro is spirited and lithe, and although this is ‘big band’ Haydn it doesn’t sound too heavy. An elegant grace is brought out in the ‘ticking’ slow movement but the maestro’s treatment of the minuet is too emphatic for my taste; the music is rather hammered out. However, I enjoyed the trio in which the flute and bassoon solos over a delicate accompaniment give much pleasure. There’s energy and pleasing use of contrast in the finale and overall this is a good performance of the symphony. There’s little sign of the alleged ‘bandmaster’ in this interpretation.

Given the age of the recording and its provenance from a radio broadcast the sound quality is remarkably good and the transfers have been well managed. This concert shows Toscanini at his dynamic best and it also reminds us what a fine band the PSONY was at this time.

John Quinn

A concert that shows Toscanini at his dynamic best and that also reminds us what a fine band the PSONY was in 1945.