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REVIEW Plain text for smartphones & printers


Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Coriolan Overture, Op. 62 [6:44]
Symphony No. 3 in E Flat major, Op. 55, Eroica [45:15]
NBC Symphony Orchestra/Arturo Toscanini
rec. 19 February 1949, New York City, live broadcast

This CD contains a complete NBC broadcast including announcements before and after both works. The Coriolan overture was written for a production of Heinrich von Collin’s play of the same name rather than Shakespeare’s Coriolanus. The NBC announcer acknowledges this but, presumably reading from a script, repeatedly refers to the work as “The Coriolanus Overture”.

This oddity need not deter us from enjoying Beethoven’s masterly seven or eight minute distillation of the tragedy of a Roman general torn between what he perceived as his military duty and the pleadings of his wife for peace. The dramatic music at the beginning and later represents the martial side of his dilemma while the tender music symbolises his wife’s supplications. This reading lasts for less than seven minutes. When Toscanini performed this overture a few years later he took about a minute longer, which you would expect to have allowed greater scope for characterising both aspects of the music. Still, I wouldn’t suggest that this powerfully played 1949 performance necessarily sells the characterisation short, despite its faster speed.

It has been said that in the late 1920s, Toscanini took five minutes longer over the Eroica Symphony than he did during his subsequent tenure with the NBC Symphony Orchestra. Those earlier performances, seemingly not preserved in recordings, must have been majestic indeed. Nevertheless, this 1949 NBC event has its share of majesty and other qualities.

In the first movement, the sharp rhythm with which the main theme is first played announces that this will indeed be a con brio performance. It does not lack the necessary spaciousness, as one senses rather than observes the subtle rubato Toscanini uses as the music unfolds. In the liner notes, Jack Diether calls attention to the end of the coda, where Beethoven repeats the opening theme four times. In the final repetition, Toscanini departs from the score but follows his usual NBC practice in having his trumpets dominate as they play the whole theme, rather than part of it. Diether says that “the dramatic power of this practice is overwhelming, it is aesthetically right …”. I agree with this in the context of Toscanini’s view of the work, but would note that, as other conductors have shown, it is not the only way of playing the passage convincingly.

The slow movement has always been the centrepiece of this conductor’s Eroicas. He doesn’t rush it and no performances I’ve heard surpass his in expressing the feeling of tragedy implicit in Beethoven’s score. There is some string playing of great eloquence and around 1:40 the grieving cellos almost seem to speak. A mighty climax is built. Throughout, there is great textural clarity.

The third movement is suitably sprightly but, compared to many others, the horns in the trio are noticeably reticent. The clipped nature of their playing provides a clue that the conductor is mainly responsible. Under many conductors, the horns play espressivo here, regardless of what the score may say. I suspect Toscanini didn’t relax his beat sufficiently to allow this to happen. In addition, the engineers may have balanced the horns too distantly. The players should, I think, be exonerated.

The Finale gets off to an arresting start without the kind of unpleasant, whiplash attack which seems to occur in Toscanini’s 1939 broadcast – discussed below. This 1949 performance proceeds majestically with much detail observed on the way. In the coda, however, the horns again disappoint and the reasons are the same as in the previous movement: not enough flexibility from the podium and a somewhat backward balance. Still, nothing really stops this Eroica from reaching a rousing conclusion.

The sound quality of this restoration is warm, which is untypical of most recordings emanating from this venue: the notoriously dry Studio 8H. For this, we can thank Pristine’s addition of an acoustic ‘fingerprint’ from an unnamed but excellent concert hall. The frequencies are slightly attenuated at both ends of the range but the sound is very serviceable, distortion free and blessed with a quiet background. The audience is quiet, too.

In order to compare performances and sound, I listened to Toscanini’s 1939 broadcast of the Symphony which almost certainly came from Studio 8H, also. My CD was produced by Grammophono 2000 using the CEDAR process. To judge by its results, this process was able to minimise distortion and noise but did not add warmth. The sound is of the dry, harsh, top-heavy type traditionally associated with NBC recordings made in this studio. The performance has also been issued on other labels, including Music and Arts in their set of the conductor’s 1939 survey of all the Beethoven symphonies (review) and by Living Era coupled with the Fifth Symphony on a single CD (review).

The 1939 performance is similar in outline to its 1949 successor, except that the slow movement at 16:25 takes just over a minute longer. There is remarkable internal clarity, which can be attributed to the great precision of the playing but also to the dry acoustic. I would rate this reading of the movement as even finer than the 1949 traversal but the sound is not enticing.

The other three movements in 1939 sound faster than their 1949 counterparts, but the timings show that they are not. Each movement runs to within a few seconds of the same movement in the other performance. I put the apparent speed of the earlier performance down to the sometimes-remarked tendency of thin sound to make a tempo sound faster than it is. I now think the aggressive-sounding opening of the 1939 final movement may be due to the sound quality as much as the conductor.

Taking it as a whole, this 1949 performance is, I think, a great one, despite any incidental niggles one might have. The much superior sound of Pristine’s restoration makes it a better choice than the 1939 recording, even if the latter rivals it in artistic quality.
Rob W McKenzie



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