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Arturo Toscanini (conductor) Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra of New York: Complete Recordings - Volume 2 New York Philharmonic Orchestra (Mendelssohn)
rec. studio and live 1929-36 PRISTINE AUDIO PASC588 [67:06 + 77:13]
Firstly, some background to the reissue of these significant documents from Toscanini’s early days. I’ve heard some of them on “Toscanini and the NYPSO” (Pearl) and the “Toscanini Collection” (RCA). Let’s remember that, whilst these are early recordings, Toscanini had been conducting since 1886. He was already 59 by 1926. At first, he was very sceptical of the process but later had a vast catalogue. There can have been few households that didn’t own one of his records in the 1940s, 1950s and beyond.
The present release completes Pristine’s Toscanini/Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra survey as restored by Mark Obert-Thorn. The voyage began with Volume 1 (Pristine PASC575) featuring every take published on 78 rpm as well as several items never released in that format. This volume presents a take of the Prelude to Act 3 of Verdi’s La Traviata which has not been available since the shellac era, as well as the first release of the finale of the Beethoven Fifth Symphony from an otherwise unissued live performance. Toscanini’s first recordings with the ensemble then known as the New York Philharmonic were made during his earliest appearances as guest conductor in 1926. The Brunswick label assembled 74 players from the orchestra in a small venue (unidentified on the ledgers, but said to be the fifth-floor Chapter Room within Carnegie Hall) to record two excerpts from Mendelssohn’s incidental music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream. They used Brunswick’s proprietary “Light-Ray” electrical process. The resulting sound was clear - even preserving a player’s cough during the Scherzo - if a bit overloaded at climaxes.
Three years later Toscanini had become co-conductor of the orchestra which had in the interim been merged with Damrosch’s New York Symphony. They revisited the Mendelssohn Scherzo to produce what Pristine describe as a supercharged reading which shaved a half-minute off his earlier running time for this short piece. It stands as a clear demonstration of the virtuoso ensemble he had honed.
It is interesting, at this point, to mention the alternate takes. In the early days of electrical recording, it was common for Victor to make at least three takes of each side. One would be chosen as the master, with the others marked to be held or destroyed. During the early 1940s, Victor replaced the originally-issued takes on many of its best-selling recordings due to wear on the metal mothers which were then used to grow new ‘stampers’. Several Toscanini recordings experienced substitutions of this nature, some (as seen in this volume) having more than one alternate take published. While the alternates are usually fairly similar to the originally-published versions, occasionally some noticeable differences appear.
In 1929 there were very frustrating experiences with the frequent stops and starts of recording on limited-duration 78s, Toscanini vowed never again to make records. Victor, however, was keen on preserving his interpretation of the Beethoven Fifth Symphony. In March 1931, two live performances were each recorded directly onto nine 78 rpm matrices. The first attempt was deemed unusable, and the second was subjected to sonically-compromising dubbings for all but the last two sides. The end of the first matrix was further degraded with a muffled-sounding insert from the first performance. Not surprisingly, it was rejected by Toscanini. Modern restoration tools have allowed this performance finally to be heard without special pleading for the sound, while the concluding side from the earlier performance is presented here for the first time. For Volume 1, I reviewed the 1933 version of Beethoven 5th. also, never released by RCA. This appeared in the Pearl box from 1989 and in that form I’ve known it for thirty years; it too was re-mastered by Mark Obert-Thorn.
Toward the end of his final season as music director of the Philharmonic in 1936, RCA was able to reach a compromise with the Maestro. Recordings would be made during studio sessions, which would allow for re-takes; but they would be taken down without fully stopping after each side. Instead, at pre-arranged points in the score, the conductor would pause momentarily while the next side was begun on a second cutter. The overtures to “L’Italiana in Algeri” and “Semiramide” were done in this manner, preserving the forward momentum of a live performance.
So, having gone into the background of these pioneering recordings, we can now listen to what is on offer and establish why, more than eighty years, in some cases ninety, after they were recorded, they matter. They are after all a record (excuse the pun) of one of the greatest conductors of all time, who at his height was recognisable to over half the American population. We begin with three takes of Gluck’s “Dance of the Blessed Spirits” from “Orfeo ed Eurydice” which also features “Che Faro” (What is Life?) as immortalised by Kathleen Ferrier. It’s a delightful piece and Toscanini and his New York orchestra play it very tenderly: it was enjoyable hearing the melody three times and trying to spot subtle differences. It’s testimony to Toscanini that I really couldn’t! There are slight differences in speed, but at the risk of going back to the cliché-ed differences between Toscanini and Furtwängler, the Italian maestro has a deserved reputation for consistency. True, he did speed up as he got older, unlike Otto Klemperer who became even more measured. What comes across despite the inevitable, yet consistent, background noise is the quality of the playing. This may be ninety years old and the players long gone, but the beauty of Gluck’s music shines through. I’ve always loved this music since it was used on a radio play in the 1960s and this performance is intensely moving.
Volume 1 had the 1933 Beethoven 5th. and here we have the 1931 version which was preferred by Jonathan Woolf back in 2002 when he reviewed a previous transfer by Mark Obert-Thorn for Naxos. He preferred the earlier traversal as marginally the superior performance. To the latter’s power and directness can be added the earlier performance’s lyrical persuasiveness and also its pliant and sensitive phrasing. This recording, rejected by Toscanini, has now been enhanced by pitch stabilization and equalization methods facilitated by Andrew Rose. The beginning is measured and shows Toscanini’s dedication to communicating the score he felt Beethoven wrote. The playing shows how great the orchestra were and due to the wonders of the restoration, we can thrill to the performance that, lest we forget, is nearly 90 years old. What is particularly impressive is the Andante con moto with the wind instruments perfectly in accord with the strings. The coughing is eerie and not really intrusive, it makes us realise we are eavesdropping on an unforgettable real experience. The horn-playing in the Scherzo blasts through the background noise, which my ears soon filtered out. There is a fluidity in the 64 year old maestro’s approach here, which eluded him in later years as he became more rigid and fast. If I may suggest, it would be good for one or two modern practitioners to listen to this and learn. The dynamics are quite remarkable and the build up is very tangible. As the orchestra erupts into the famous Allegro one gets some notion of what those first listeners felt in Vienna back in 1808. I’m very fond of Klaus Tennstedt’s live recording from 1990 LPO (review) and this recording gives me a similar exalted feeling. It’s a magnificent culmination to a unique performance and whilst it’s sad that Toscanini banned its release, we are very privileged to hear it now. Any lover of this work must hear it. There is no applause, but we are given, as an encore, the conclusion of the Allegro from two days earlier. If anything the bass of the cellos and double basses is more prominent but the same pulse and commitment are present.
Toscanini’s Mendelssohn is very special indeed and its fascinating to hear the different takes of the Scherzo from 1926 and 1929 respectively. Toscanini was a great Mendelssohn conductor and there are later recordings with the NBC Symphony of the “Midsummer Night’s Dream” music and the “Italian” and “Reformation” Symphonies. What a shame he didn’t record, in the studio, the “Scottish” although there’s a live recording on Guild, which I haven’t heard but which Jonathan Woolf found disappointing. I’d have thought he would have been magnificent in that thrilling final coda. The contrast between the two Scherzos, separated by three years, is quite astonishing. In 1926, amongst his earliest recordings for Brunswick he builds up after a steady start. There the timing is 4:46. In 1929, he goes off like the clappers and finishes the piece in 4:19. It says a great deal for the orchestra, including that they are perfect. The flautist in the Scherzo is Jan Amans (1884-1958). The 1926 Nocturne moves me as it always has, since I heard Dennis Brain play it on Paul Kletzki’s recording with the Philharmonia, a recording I’d love Pristine to re-master. The playing is quite sublime and the French horn player Bruno Jaenicke (1887-1946) whose only other recording appears to be with Wilhelm Mengelberg and the NYP in the famous 1928 Ein Heldenleben (Pearl), that I’ve sadly never heard. The Nocturne, the 1926 Scherzo and the first take of the Gluck are tracks that I will want to return to often.
The second CD is similarly well filled and covers Toscanini conducting Rossini, Verdi and Dukas. We begin with three takes of the overture to “The Barber of Seville”, the prequel to “The Marriage of Figaro”. I haven’t heard his NBC recording of the wonderful overture, probably best, based on his dire “Magic Flute”. Toscanini was born to conduct this kind of music, magnificent, dynamic and keeping the same tempo throughout. There are lovely flourishes and a striking build-up to a thrilling crescendo. The years fall away with this very impressive sound. It’s quite fun to listen to three versions but better to play them singly; they’re all equally inspiring. “The Italian Girl in Algiers” overture has all the greasepaint of the theatre and we’re awaiting the curtain to rise. Again, the sound is remarkable for its age and the orchestra play as one. It’s less frantic but just as exciting as his “William Tell” where it sounds as if “last orders” were called two minutes before the end. “Semiramide” is the third Rossini overture and right up there in producing exhilaration and sheer joy with its predecessors. I love Beecham’s performance with the RPO which I have on an old “Overtures” CD but this is marvellous too. It’s the pacing and build-up that both genius conductors were able to generate without going out of control. The cymbal sounds are very impressive too. “Semiramide”, Rossini’s last opera, has an overture borrowing musical ideas from the opera itself. This meant Rossini couldn’t use it for another work, such as he had done previously. Mark Obert-Thorn explains that the RCA engineers used two recording devices in delayed tandem, capturing the momentum of the Toscanini in top gear and with the minimum of technical problems.
The preludes to Acts 1 and 3 of La Traviata are sympathetically performed as one would expect from a pall-bearer at Verdi’s funeral. I remain ignorant of much of Verdi’s magnificent music but I recognise a kind of operatic Shakespeare. The music surely had no greater ambassador than Toscanini who later left a complete recording for RCA. Once again, Toscanini is very consistent across the three separate takes, which will be enjoyed by Toscanini or Verdi completists alike. The orchestral sound from 1929 is quite remarkable and is certainly listenable. That is unless you vehemently object to 78 hiss which I certainly don’t in the interest of true sound.
The last item in this set is a magical performance of Paul Dukas’s “Sorcerer’s Apprentice”, recorded ten years before Leopold Stokowski’s ground-breaking version in Walt Disney’s epic “Fantasia”. It was previously with the Beethoven Fifth and Mendelssohn that Jonathan Woolf on the above mentioned Naxos disc (review) felt Toscanini was showing off. He certainly doesn’t hang about and this must be one of the speedier versions. There’s real rhythm and a feeling of vigour which releases immense reserves of adrenaline. The Orchestra play superbly and the music comes up astonishingly well. There’s some very impressive trumpets and tubas blazing away and it certainly sounds as if Toscanini enjoyed the work. The drama is maintained throughout and one can picture tone-poem’s action with clarity. There are two takes, which I would suggest are best heard on separate occasions, only the second side differs.
This has been a labour of love for Mark Obert-Thorn and Andrew Rose which is very much appreciated by a lover of Toscanini who has often had to endure poor sound. This set is recommended for all those who want to hear the early recordings by this Maestro.
David R Dunsmore
Contents CD 1[67:06] GLUCK: Orfeo ed Eurydice
1. Dance of the Blessed Spirits [originally issued Take 4] [5:01]
rec. 21 November 1929 ∙ Matrix: CVE 48956-4. First issued on Victor 7138 in album M-65
2. Dance of the Blessed Spirits [first substitute Take 1] [4:59]
rec. 5 April 1929 ∙ Matrix: CVE 48956-1. First issued on Victor 7138 in album M-65
3. Dance of the Blessed Spirits [second substitute Take 3] [4:53]
rec. 5 April 1929 ∙ Matrix: CVE 48956-3. First issued on Victor 7138 in album M-65 BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67
4. 1st Mvt.: Allegro con brio [6:16]
5. 2nd Mvt.: Andante con moto [9:59]
6. 3rd Mvt.: Allegro [4:58]
7. 4th Mvt.: Allegro [9:00]
rec. live 6 March 1931 ∙ Matrices: CVE 67520-1R, 67521-2R, 67522-1R, 67523-1R, 67524-2R, 67525-2R, 67526-1R, 67527-2 and 67528-2 ∙ Unissued on 78 rpm
8. 4th Mvt.: Allegro - conclusion [3:04]
rec. live, 4 March 1931 ∙ Matrix: CVE 67528-1 ∙ Previously unpublished MENDELSSOHN: A Midsummer Night’s Dream [Incidental Music], Op. 61
9. No. 1 - Scherzo [4:49]
10. No. 7 - Nocturne [5:29]
rec. 4 February 1926 ∙ Matrices: XE 17797 and between 17798 and 17801 ∙ First issued on Brunswick 50074
11. No. 1 - Scherzo [originally issued Take 3] [4:19]
rec. 30 March 1929 ∙ Matrix: CVE 48948-3 ∙ First issued on Victor 7080 in album M-57
12. No. 1 - Scherzo [substitute Take 1] [4:19]
rec. 30 March 1929 ∙ Matrix: CVE 48948-1 ∙ First issued on Victor 7080 in album M-57 CD 2[77:14] ROSSINI: Il barbiere di Siviglia
1. Overture [originally issued Take 3 for first side] [7:30]
rec. 21 November 1929 ∙ Matrices: CVE 56802-3 and 56803-3 ∙ First issued on Victor 7255
2. Overture [first substitute Take 4 for first side] [7:29]
rec. 21 November 1929 ∙ Matrices: CVE 56802-4 and 56803-3 ∙ First issued on Victor 7255
3. Overture [second substitute Take 2 for first side] [7:34]
rec. 21 November 1929 ∙ Matrices: CVE 56802-2 and 56803-3 ∙ First issued on RCA Victor 11-9229 in album M-1063 ROSSINI: L’Italiana in Algeri
4. Overture [7:36]
rec. 10 April 1936 ∙ Matrices: CS 101218-1 and 101219-1 ∙ First issued on Victor 14161 ROSSINI: Semiramide
5. Overture [12:32]
rec. 10 April 1936 ∙ Matrices: CS 101214-1, 101215-1, 101216-1 and 101217-1 ∙ First issued on Victor 14632/3 in album M-408 VERDI: La traviata
6. Prelude to Act 1 [3:48]
rec. 18 March 1929 ∙ Matrix: CVE 48936-3 ∙ First issued on Victor 6994
7. Prelude to Act 3 [originally issued Take 4] [4:07]
rec. 29 March 1929 ∙ Matrix: CVE 48942-4 ∙ First issued on Victor 6994
8. Prelude to Act 3 [substitute Take 3] [4:06]
rec. 29 March 1929 ∙ Matrix: CVE 48942-3 ∙ First issued on Victor 6994
9. Prelude to Act 3 [alternate unpublished take] [3:59]
rec. 18 March 1929 ∙ Matrix: CVE 48937-3 ∙ Unpublished on 78 rpm
10. DUKAS: L’apprenti sorcier [originally issued Take 2 for second side] [9:18]
rec. 18 March 1929 ∙ Matrices: CVE 48938-3 and 48939-2 ∙ First issued on Victor 7021
11. DUKAS: L’apprenti sorcier [substitute Take 1 for second side] [9:13]
rec. 18 March 1929 ∙ Matrices: CVE 48938-3 and 48939-1 ∙ First issued on Victor 7021
Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra of New York
New York Philharmonic Orchestra (CD 1, Tracks 9 and 10)
rec. Carnegie Hall, New York City. (CD 1, Tracks 9 and 10: Chapter Room of Carnegie Hall)
Producer and Audio Restoration Engineer: Mark Obert-Thorn
Pitch stabilisation and equalisation matching (Beethoven): Andrew Rose