This is a somewhat unusual two disc release. The first CD is
devoted to baroque repertory, recorded over the years between
1938 and 1954, whilst the second re-releases a limited edition
LP of 1960 devoted to Toscanini’s rehearsals. In fact
everything here was first issued via the authorisation of the
conductor’s son, Walter, and the booklet includes photo
reproductions of the relevant LP sleeves and vinyl labels.
I’m never defensive about reviewing older recordings or
broadcasts of baroque works. This is how it was done or, rather,
these are the ways in which it was done. Leopold Stokowski did
it, Henry Wood did it, even Hamilton Harty did it - but they
all did it differently, whether it was Bach or Handel or Frescobaldi.
The current habit of apologising, or cringing, at the massive
sonorities engendered by conductors such as the trio above has
always struck me as bizarre. In any case the counter-attack,
and a more subtle one, as practised by wily critics such as
Mortimer Frank (a Toscanini specialist) is to play off Toscanini
against Stokowski, holding the latter up to retrospective ridicule
in the light of the former’s more temperate, indeed stylistically
more ‘modern’ sensibility. But then, wasn’t
Anthony Bernard in London with his chamber orchestra in the
late 1920s doing the same thing as Toscanini, and wasn’t
Adolf Busch too with his, only rather better?
I enjoy Stokowski’s Bach and Toscanini’s, and do
so differently. One doesn’t have to choose. Toscanini’s
Brandenburg Concerto is deftly motored, textually clear and
has plenty of brio and bite. It has splendid contributions from
trumpeter Bernard Baker in particular, but also from John Wummer
the flautist, elite oboist Robert Bloom, and concertmaster Mischa
Mischakoff, whose name is misspelled in the booklet. Unmentioned
there as well is the audible harpsichordist, who is none other
than Erich Leinsdorf. This lightly textured, finely conceived,
small-scale reading was recorded with the NBC in a 1938 broadcast
and is a credit to all concerned.
More massive is the hyphenated Bach-Respighi Passacaglia and
Fugue in C minor. The regular pulse of its progress, and the
enveloping sonorities create a truly engulfing sound, during
which you can just make out the conductor’s moaning encouragement.
Vivaldi’s D minor Concerto grosso completes the baroque
trio in good style, whilst the Rossini String Symphony is heard
in its American premiere performance in this November 1952 broadcast.
The genial, rather Schubertian writing comes most alive in the
Allegro finale. Keep on your toes in these last two, as they’re
mis-tracked. If you think Vivaldi sounds like Rossini, that’s
because it is - and vice versa.
The second disc is the rehearsal one. The excerpts come from
1946, 1947 and 1952 and the works are the overture to The
Magic Flute, the finale of Beethoven’s Choral
Symphony and Acts I and II of La Traviata. The commentary
is by Marcia Davenport, patrician sounding daughter of the singer
Alma Gluck, and it takes up 16 minutes of the side’s hour
or so length. Commentary is extensive at the beginning and is
then interspersed throughout the rehearsal extracts. You will
note the wearying references to ‘Maestro’ - the
familiar genuflectio that Americans reserve among conductors
only for Toscanini. It’s not because there is an absence
of watch-stomping, score-tearing, baton-breaking and chair-kicking
that I found these rehearsals less than engrossing. After all
they were, I suspect, chosen precisely to debunk the idea of
Maestro as a rehearsal dictator - which he was, or could be.
What’s left is scrupulous, professional, collegiate, and
rather dull. One doesn’t really learn much, other than
the questions of balancing, articulation, dynamics and the like,
and these are surely familiar to all rehearsals by all, or most,
conscientious conductors. When Toscanini sings the parts, that
gives one an indication of his idea of line, but I can’t
say I was riveted.
So, whilst I appreciate that the theme of these two discs is
that the material derives from Walter Toscanini’s limited
edition LPs, I don’t know whether that in itself is enough
to warrant a thorough recommendation. I will say this however;
Toscanini’s intimate and astute way with Bach is well
worth hearing, and admiring.