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Toscanini 150th Anniversary
Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Overture Aida (1872) [9:08]
Georges BIZET (1838-1875)
Suite Carmen (1875) (arr. Toscanini) [12:41]
Pyotr Il’yich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Suite The nutcracker op. 71A (1892) [22:15]
Émile WALDTEUFEL (1837-1913)
Skaters waltz (1882) (arr. Toscanini) [6:58]
Gioachino ROSSINI (1792-1868)
Overture William Tell (1829) [11:05]
Harmonie Ensemble/New York/Steven Richman
rec. 2015, Performing Arts Center, Purchase College, State University of New York
BRIDGE 9493 [62:18]

Arturo Toscanini was born in 1867; the NBC Symphony Orchestra was formed especially for him in 1937; and he died in 1957. Last year therefore marked several Toscanini-related anniversaries, and Bridge Records has taken the opportunity to release this supposedly Toscanini-themed programme.

I say supposedly because any link to the maestro is actually somewhat vague. As Harvey Sachs’s booklet notes explain, in compiling this CD’s contents Steven Richman and Harmonie Ensemble/New York have bypassed those works that might be considered as Toscanini’s core repertoire. Instead they have chosen “works that he enjoyed programming from time to time, especially during his years with the NBC Symphony”.

Using that rationale, of course, one might construct literally dozens of permutations of pieces to fill such a commemorative release. I took a cursory glance at the 71 volumes of the “official” Toscanini CD collection that RCA issued in the 1990s, and consulted appendices 1 (Nonbroadcast Toscanini NBC Symphony Orchestra concerts), 3 (Works performed by Toscanini at NBC absent from his New York Philharmonic programs), 4 (Works performed by Toscanini with the New York Philharmonic absent from his NBC Symphony Orchestra programs) and 8 (Discography) of Mortimer H. Frank’s authoritative Arturo Toscanini: the NBC years (Portland, Oregon, 2002). This threw up plenty of other examples of non-core pieces that might have vied for inclusion with equal legitimacy.

It is, therefore, worth noting from the start that this particular selection is an essentially arbitrary one – though, to be fair, that certainly makes it no less “valid” than another that might have included such other of the maestro’s occasional meanderings off the well-beaten track as, say, the overtures to Meyerbeer’s L’étoile du nord or Kabalevsky’s Colas Breugnon, Tommasini’s Carnival of Venice or Rubinstein’s Valse caprice. In point of fact, the Verdi/Bizet/Tchaikovsky/Waldteufel/Rossini programme that we are offered here turns out to be a generally enjoyable one. At one or two points it actually goes beyond that and is really rather good.

The opportunity to hear the rarely-encountered full-scale overture to Aida – given its world premiere performance by Toscanini himself as late as 1940 – is valuable, though it only serves to demonstrate the greater dramatic effectiveness of Verdi’s original conception of a more concise prelude. Another rarity is the Carmen suite, for it turns out not to be the one usually recorded – as arranged by Ernest Guiraud in the 1880s - but an alternative that Toscanini devised when in his 70s. It includes a brief but attractively florid harp cadenza (somewhat, to my ears, reminiscent of passages in Tchaikovsky’s The nutcracker) that he composed as a bridge from the prelude to Act 1 into the succeeding Act 3 prelude. All in all, this version comes across both refreshing and invigorating, and is well worth hearing.

An account of the familiar suite from The nutcracker itself is neatly done, but is not particularly individual or memorable. The booklet notes seem equally at a loss to make much of it, merely observing that “Richman pays tribute to the Maestro by interpreting the piece in a natural, unsentimentalized way, as did Toscanini” – which will, I suspect, not be necessarily to the taste of those who prefer their Tchaikovsky to be rather more colourful.

Toscanini the re-arranger comes to the fore once again in Waldteufel’s best-known composition Skaters waltz. Dissatisfied with the original version that was intended for salon orchestras, the conductor beefed it up to create something of a foot-tapping crowd-pleaser when performed by a modern symphony orchestra. This particular performance is, I think, a little stiff and unyielding. Even though Waldteufel was born in Alsace rather than Austria, I cannot help thinking that the injection of a little Viennese Gemütlichkeit would not have gone amiss – though I concede that it is not a quality that comes immediately to mind when we think of Toscanini.

The CD concludes with another audience favourite, Rossini’s William Tell overture. Once again, Mr Richman and his New Yorkers follow a Toscanini modification – in this case a doubling of the five solo cellos at the opening. This is actually the track that showcases Harmonie Ensemble/New York’s most effective characteristics. The playing is airy and transparent – and enhanced by Adam Abeshouse’s skilful engineering and the rather dry acoustic (a nod in the direction of Toscanini’s own Studio 8H?) – while Richman directs with a good feel for pace and rhythm, and with a fine ear for orchestral balance and dynamics. This is clearly a considered performance rather than one that has just been dashed off in pursuit of superficial excitement. As such, it brings this release to a particularly enjoyable conclusion.

Rob Maynard



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