Arturo Toscanini - Ave atque vale
CD 1
Antonio VIVALDI (1678-1741) Concerto Grosso in D minor, Op. 3 No. 11 [12:07]
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791) Symphony no. 40 in G minor, K550 [23:04]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897) Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op. 68 [42:06]
CD 2
Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Lohengrin: Prelude, Act 1 [8:21]
Siegfried: Forest Murmurs [8:46]
Götterdämmerung: Dawn and Siegfried’s Rhine Journey [12:15]
Tannhäuser: Overture and Bacchanale (Paris version) [25:22]
Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg: Prelude, Act 1 [9:24]
NBC Symphony Orchestra/Arturo Toscanini
rec. 25 December 1937, Studio 8H, Radio City, New York (CD 1); 4 April 1954, Carnegie Hall, New York (CD 2)
GUILD HISTORICAL GHCD 2369/70 [78:03 + 64:08]

This pair of discs presents Toscanini’s first and last concerts with the NBC Symphony Orchestra, the orchestra created for him. The first concert was given live on the evening of Christmas Day, 1937 and is preceded by a short announcement conveying “Christmas greetings from Radio City.”

Toscanini opened his performing history with the orchestra with a short work for strings by Vivaldi. In his booklet note Robert Matthew-Walker justly observes that at this time Vivaldi’s music was far from as widely performed as is the case today. He also speculates that the maestro may have chosen the piece to allow his new string section to play itself in. I’m afraid I find the music completely devoid of interest but, then, Vivaldi’s music is a blind spot for me.

I had much higher hopes of the Mozart symphony but was rather disappointed. Robert Matthew-Walker says that the conductor “is at one with the composer in his recreative fire and expressive power. Not that he overdoes the steely strength for which, as an interpreter, Toscanini would later be criticised in succeeding NBC Symphony broadcasts …” Respectfully, I have to disagree with that second sentence. Though there is vigour in the performance I detect no affection in the interpretation, nor much grace. On the contrary, in the first movement there are several instances where chords are played in such a way that they sound almost brutally chopped – for instance, the chord sequence that comes at the end of the exposition section. The slow movement is better but too often the Minuet sounds strict and unyielding, though the trio fares better. As for the finale, dispatched in a mere three minutes, the less said about it the better. It sounds like a case of “let’s show everyone just how fast we can play this movement.” The music is rushed off its feet and has no room to breath. Frankly, its perverse. To my ears Toscanini bullies the symphony. I have no desire to hear again this charmless account of one of my favourite Mozart works.

The Brahms symphony is much more to my taste. Toscanini certainly has the measure of this score and leads a fine and often dramatic account of it. There’s surging energy in the first movement, while the second movement is taken spaciously and shows the calibre of the newly-formed orchestra. The finale is powerful though some may feel, as I do, that some passages in the introduction are taken too broadly. Once the main allegro is reached, however, the interpretation is vigorous and dramatic.

Toscanini’s last concert with the orchestra took place in April 1954 when the maestro was starting to fade – I don’t know if the concert was intended to be his last concert or just became the finale to his career. The event has passed into legend, of course, not least on account of the moment during the Meistersinger Prelude when Toscanini momentarily stopped conducting.

The quality of the music making is high and I don’t think one would discern, simply from listening, that the conductor’s powers were waning. He leads a distinguished performance of the timeless Lohengrin Prelude and distils excellent atmosphere in ‘Forest Murmurs’. The playing of the NBCSO is excellent here and, indeed, throughout the concert. The Tannhäuser Overture is noble and the ‘Bacchanale’ is full of energy. The Meistersinger Prelude is excellent, not least because the tempi are lively and there’s no hint of bombast. Toscanini’s very last performance was a fine one.

In considering the sound one must take into consideration the age of the recordings and the venues. The 1937 sound is rather shrill at times and there’s little sense of space round the sound; the timpani boom in the Brahms. Come forward to 1954 and the much more congenial acoustic of Carnegie Hall and one notices an improvement. However, Guild seem to have transferred both recordings successfully.

These recordings are not new to CD, I believe – I know the 1954 concert has appeared elsewhere. However, it’s valuable and convenient for Toscanini devotees to have them in harness.

John Quinn

Toscanini’s first and last concerts with the NBC Symphony Orchestra conveniently packaged together.