Toscanini: Red Cross Benefit Concert, Madison Square Garden, May 1944
CD 1
Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Tannhäuser - overture (Dresden version) (1845) [14:28]
Götterdämmerung - Prologue, Dawn and Siegfried’s Rhine Journey (1876) [11:31]
Tristan and Isolde - Prelude [10:17]: Liebestod (1865) [6:47]
Die Walküre - Act III; Ride of the Valkyries (1850) [5:27]
Intermission announcement [2:05]: Mayor La Guardia raffles Toscanini’s baton for the American Red Cross [8:48]
CD 2
Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Rigoletto Act III (1851) [31:24]
Rigoletto - Leonard Warren (baritone)
Gilda - Zinka Milanov (soprano)
Duke - Jan Peerce (tenor)
Sparafucile - Nicola Moscona (bass)
Maddalena - Nan Merriman (mezzo)
Hymn of the Nations (1862) [13:31]
John Philip SOUSA (1854 1932)
Stars and Stripes Forever (1897) [4:22]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Opening commentary [0:16]
Symphony No.5 in C minor Op.67 (1807) [26:54]
NBC Symphony and Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra of New York Orchestras (combined)/Arturo Toscanini
NBC Symphony Orchestra/Arturo Toscanini (Beethoven No.5 only)
rec. Madison Square Garden, NYC, 25 May 1944 except the Beethoven Symphony, rec. 8 May 1945
IMMORTAL PERFORRMANCES IPCD 1014-2 [59:25 + 76:32]
The Madison Square Garden American Red Cross benefit concert was given on 25 May 1944. Toscanini presided over the combined NBC and Philharmonic-Symphony of New York orchestras, one of which he directed (NBC) and the other (the PSONY) he had directed. There’s no indication that this complete concert is making its commercial first ever release, but I’m not aware of another such release that contains every scrap as presented in this two-disc offering from Immortal Performances.
Scrap is not pejorative. Rather it’s meant to indicate that some of the material is necessarily peripheral to the musical matter in hand. During the intermission an announcement was made that Mayor La Guardia would raffle Toscanini’s baton for the Red Cross. This all takes up eleven minutes but it is a very evocative eleven minutes. La Guardia amusingly bullies the price up to reach $11,000, and the sound preserves a vivid moment; this was presumably recorded on two shellac sides, the second of which (the second part of the auction) is in significantly better sound than the first. No matter: a slice of history is enshrined.
The music centred on Wagner and Verdi. It opens with a dynamic, dramatic Tannhäuser overture (Dresden version). Toscanini’s performances of this didn’t alter substantially as performances from March 1938 and December 1948 - which is also preserved on film - demonstrate. However the combined orchestras produce a thrillingly massive sonority, with fulsome strings and powerful brass. Listen also to the visceral cymbal crashes. The demerit is a real congestion of sound in climaxes, with swishing strings and blasting in fortes. There has clearly been significant restoration work to try to alleviate this problem, and indeed it sounds better than it can ever have sounded before. But it’s still not the easiest of aural rides. Such problems are very much less audible in the Prologue, Dawn and Siegfried’s Rhine Journey from Götterdämmerung which appeared frequently in Toscanini’s programmes from the later 1930s to 1954. There’s some shellac hiss at the start of Tristan but more than this one notices the wonderful richness of conception and execution - the power and the passion - of the conducting and the playing. Add this to the March 1938 and February 1939 and February 1941 inscriptions to feel the intensity of Toscanini’s conducting of the Prelude andLiebestod.
Act III of Rigoletto has been issued before often enough. RCA Red Seal issued it and companies such as Opus Kura have issued their CD versions into the bargain. It’s one of Toscanini’s most admired Verdi performances. It too features the combined orchestras, and a stellar cast. It’s in good sound, well balanced and tautly conducted. Warren, Milanov, Peerce, Moscona and Merriman offer a lexicon of committed vocalism.
We also hear Verdi’s Hymn of the Nations, an exciting potboiler, and also a frequent Toscanini encore piece in the Northern states of the United States in the shape of Sousa’s Stars and Stripes Forever. Down South he encored with Dixie. The two-disc set ends with Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony in a studio performance given almost exactly a year later as a VE Day Concert. Overlook the errant track-listing which notes the opening commentary is 16 minutes 5 seconds long. It’s actually 16 seconds long. Toscanini was allowed 30 minutes for the broadcast performance and so he cut the first movement repeat. It seems as if this stricture and limitation angered the irascible conductor and one might be inclined to adjudge the performance brusque. However it doesn’t sound to me vastly dissimilar to other surviving examples, albeit there is a touch of impatience here and there. He doesn’t however rush the slow movement dramatically. I’d say, compared with his April 1933 PSONY studio 78 set and his NBC November 1939 performance, that the proportions are subtly different and that he does hustle the scherzo and finale a little more than he did ordinarily. It’s certainly not the best of Toscanini in Beethoven.
There’s a long and first class booklet essay on the performances and their background. Highly effective restoration has ensured that listening has been significantly assisted.
Jonathan Woolf 

Highly effective restoration of this two-disc offering.