Memorial Tribute to Toscanini
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Brandenburg Concerto No.2 in F major BWV1047 (1717-18) [12:12]
Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor for organ BWV582 (orch. Respighi) [11:51]
Antonio VIVALDI (1678-1741)
L’estro armonico; Concerto grosso in D minor RV.565 [14:40]
Gioachino ROSSINI (1792-1868)
Sonata a quattro (String Symphony) No.3 in C major (c.1804) [14:22]
Rehearsal extracts with commentaries by Marcia Davenport
Mozart - The Magic Flute - overture [2:48]
Beethoven - Symphony No.9 - finale [12:09] .
Verdi - La Traviata - Acts 1 and II [28:44]
NBC Symphony Orchestra/Arturo Toscanini
rec. 1938 (Bach), 1947 (Bach-Respighi), 1952 (Rossini) and 1954 (Vivaldi) Rehearsals: Mozart November 1947, Beethoven March 1952, Verdi November 1946
GUILD GHCD2364-65 [52:05 + 59:25]
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.
Jonathan Woolf
Toscanini’s intimate and astute way is well worth hearing, and admiring.