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Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856) Symphony No. 2 in C major, Op. 61 (1847) [34:39]
Symphony No. 3 in E flat major, Rhenish, Op. 97 (1850) [30:56]
NBC Symphony Orchestra / Arturo Toscanini
rec. 1946/1949, NBC Studio 8H, Radio City, New York PRISTINE AUDIO PASC584 [66:20]
This superb set of Toscanini’s Schumann was inspired by an e-mail Andrew Rose, who re-mastered the set, received in November 2019 which read thus: “I'm wondering, hoping, you have in that magical place where alternate sources are stored, the concerts of Toscanini conducting Schumann. I've heard good-sounding recordings of the 2nd symphony and Manfred on YouTube but the commercial recording of the 3rd symphony has always frustrated the heck out of me. It seems to be poster-child of a Studio 8H recording and is so cramped. I love it and would love to hear it as it should be.”
Andrew Rose confirms that "Toscanini conducted relatively little Schumann. He never performed the First Symphony or the Overture, Scherzo, and Finale, and it seems that he prepared the Fourth Symphony only once. The Second Symphony was performed more often but Toscanini turned most frequently to the two works he approved for release – The Manfred Overture and the Rhenish Symphony”. I wonder why this would be the case because the generations who followed him, George Szell, Guido Cantelli and James Levine all recorded a considerable amount of Schumann. Furtwängler stayed with the First and Fourth which, based on previous issues, would benefit from a Pristine makeover. Remarkably, Beecham, who I love greatly, only recorded Manfred - in English for no accountable reason, as far as I can tell. Toscanini conducting Symphony No. 1 The Spring would be quite something, a rival to my favourite version by Leonard Bernstein in New York (Sony). Much the same can be said of the inspiring Fourth. Bernstein was my introduction to the First.
In his “Arturo Toscanini, The NBC Years”, reviewed by Ian Lace in 2002 Mortimer H. Frank says “There are a number of reasons Toscanini’s two accounts of the Second Symphony are among the most interesting of his surviving performances. For one, they preserve his conception of an important nineteenth-century score. Over and beyond that, though, is Toscanini’s view of the work, which in many respects is so strikingly unorthodox, it forces one to hear the music in a totally new—and often compellingly revealing—light. Most intriguing are Toscanini’s unusual revisions of Schumann’s orchestration, revisions that clarify the aesthetic not only of the music but of the conductor as well."
Jonathan Woolf, in his review of Schumann No. Symphony 2, comments that some listeners may perhaps feel the rather unrelieved symphonic argument too thrusting and intense. In this respect, then, many will prefer the 1941 performance which, as yet, I have not been able to find. He thought that there were insufficient contrasts between movements and that Toscanini was too inflexible; not unique to this Symphony. My own feelings are that this is an inspirational performance of a work that is still not as popular as it should be. I love the sense of foreboding in the first movement and a feeling of impending doom. The Scherzo nods towards Beethoven’s Ninth and, in places, is like a neurotic pony. I’m very fond of the slow movement and would refer you to George Szell on Sony. Even so I was so drawn by the present performance that the fact that it was 74 years old became irrelevant; so much so that I played it again, immediately. Had Schumann heard Mozart’s Requiem when composing this? Perhaps. The last movement isn’t quite so memorable - he was 79 after all - but overall this is very impressive indeed; clearly the go-to recording, of this performance.
The announcer is kept in the recording, separately tracked: a charming touch. Toscanini then storms into the opening of The Rhenish, a tribute to the mighty river that flows through what was in 1850 a divided Germany. It is a very heroic work with backward-looking hints of Schubert and Beethoven, particularly Symphony No. 8, and forwards to Richard Strauss. The playing, as always with the NBC, is dedicated and how wonderful to hear the horns blast away. Andrew Rose has done wonders in moderating the notorious “dryness” of Studio 8H. The lilting Scherzo draws images of the flowing river and it is to be remembered that the Italian Toscanini visited Germany before WW2 and was a great success at Bayreuth before the Nazis took full control. It makes one regret again that he didn’t record the other two symphonies. The third movement is very beguiling and seems to nod to the fairies from his contemporary Felix Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, a work that Toscanini conducted so notably and which has also appeared on Pristine. I will be reviewing his New York performances very soon, all being well. The fourth movement takes us to Cologne cathedral - and there are parallels with Beethoven’s Pastoral No. 6 - with the procession to mark the elevation of a cardinal. The majesty uncovered by Schumann also evokes a vast building. Like Beethoven, Schumann’s finale is a joyful affair with a feeling of thankfulness. This sentiment Toscanini shared and the nobility of the music comes through in every bar. How incredibly sad it is that only six years after completing this, Schumann, by then a wreck of a human being, died alone in a sanatorium.
Andrew Rose hoped, with the present release, that he had achieved all his correspondent hoped for and more. The Third Symphony certainly sounds a whole better than the “sonic disaster” Mr Frank described when referring to RCA’s first LP release. There is no doubt that he has achieved this but more importantly, through Toscanini’s genius, Schumann’s inspiration comes through with every bar. This set is not just a great historical recording, it contains two great symphonic recordings. I will return to them regularly. David R Dunsmore