Music and Vision homepage

Record Box

Trawling for treasure

BILL NEWMAN seeks out Golden Age performers now reinstated on CD

BBC    BBCL 4016-2

BBC Legends - Toscanini (c) 1999 BBC Music


Despite the pinnacles of excellence that Toscanini achieved during the time he was in charge of the New York Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra, and the lengthier period when he conducted the NBC Symphony, I have always regarded the concerts with the BBC Symphony and choral forces -- from the evidence of available recordings -- as more musically satisfying and epoch making.

Their significance on the musical scene, both yesterday and today, justifies Sir Adrian Boult's stirling and conscientious efforts to prepare his players up to the hilt for the great man's visits. Toscanini was to make twenty in all, interrupted by the start of World War II -- but they signified the maestro's high approval of Boult's knowledge and expertise in the classical repertoire, immediately discernible in the disciplined directness and full-toned clarity of the orchestra's live concerts and recordings over the air or on disc.

Cherubini's Anacreon Overture, for the moment disregarding Harvey Sach's opinion of the piece, was a Toscanini speciality: he had conducted it ten years' earlier before this 1935 BBC performance with the Le Scala Orchestra. The whole work is styled as an opéra-ballet, and the overture progresses from a refined chamber start through arc-shaped spans of legato lines to moments of drama, with pointed counter asides in the style of opera buffa. The performance is a remarkable example of the maestro's eloquent stick technique and ear for instrumental balance. Strings possess that 'white' sounding, non-vibrato blend which keep textures absolutely clear, while the tiny touches of Italian portamenti give a foretaste of Rossini and Donizetti, who were shortly to arrive on the scene. The influences on Haydn and Beethoven are obvious.

Mozart's Haffner Symphony, more contrastingly dramatic and poetic in turn, finds Toscanini in his element, despite his minor distractions of humming sections of the melody that denotes his love of the music [listen -- CD 1 track 3, 0:00-0:50]. I find no argument, as some commentators do, with his Italianate smooth, unbroken shaping of upper string phrases. There is a theatrical feel here in keeping with the composer's works for the stage in the 1780s. Play Beecham or Klemperer and you will hear different approaches to Mozart's genius, but Toscanini's finely weighted, sonorous and beautifully compact reading surges with vitality, capped by an effervescent, high-spirited Finale.

Beethoven 7 has more universal claims on our appreciation of great music performed by various schools of conductors, where different opinions of tempi apply. Sachs is right when he claims that Toscanini's style of performance compares largely with his recordings with the New York Philharmonic and NBC Symphony. Movement repeats are not made, although Boult was most particular regarding this throughout his career, perhaps for the sake of interrupting the discourse of flow and sudden key contrasts, but tensions are maintained through emphasis of the bass line.

It is fascinating to compare Toscanini's tighter, fluid account with Fritz Reiner's celebrated Chicago Symphony recording where, despite a slightly weightier German approach, tempi and rhythmic nuance are remarkably similar.

In Beethoven's Missa Solemnis extra special considerations apply, and when one listens to a cross section of the internationally famous beside Toscanini, Böhm, Jochum, Karajan, Sawallisch, Giulini, Mitropoulos, Kleiber, Beecham, Szell, 'live' the work's fearsome musical and technical demands, and what are called Beethoven's 'miscalculations' or 'idiosyncrasies' in the score, they call for challenging differences of approach and a separate tally of resulting standards. I have never taken to Toscanini's later RCA recording or, indeed, the 1940 live NBC transmission. Non-sympathetic sound has an unfortunate way of distorting the image of music scored for larger forces, and some of his ruthless downbeats and clipped ending of phrases I consider unmusical, although battling with a dry acoustic, minus reverberation poses considerable problems.

No such problems existed at Queen's Hall, London, on 28 May 1939 when this BBC performance and recording took place shortly before war was declared. The breadth and charisma of Toscanini's performance, together with his dedicated attention to phrasing and dynamics (and I note Sach's tempo comparisons to the 1940/53 readings) give added humanity and spiritual endeavour to how the music should sound.

Detailed analysis is not called for, but individual choice of tempi is admirable. The excellent team of soloists -- Zinka Milanov (over impetuous in places), Kirsten Thorborg, Koloman von Pataky, and Nicola Moscano -- blend skilfully with the chorus and orchestra, all ready to follow the maestro's demands. Paul Beard's wonderfully sustained solo in the Sanctus, too, must be one of the highspots in his long and illustrious career [listen -- CD2, track 3, 1:00-2:22].

After I had played the Kyrie at a Gramophone Society meeting, a member expressed his extreme pleasure and marvelling at the sound quality for this historic event over sixty years ago.

Continue >>


Copyright © 23 May 2001 Bill Newman, Edgware, UK







 << Music & Vision home      Recent reviews       Michelangeli >>

Download a free realplayer 

For help listening to the sound extracts here,
please refer to our questions & answers page.

Record Box is Music & Vision's regular Wednesday series of shorter CD reviews