Toscanini in London: The Legendary 1935 Recordings
see end of review for full track-listing
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Arturo Toscanini
rec. Queen’s Hall, London, live in concert, 3, 5, 12, 14 June 1935; *BBC Symphony Orchestra recording session, June 1939
WEST HILL RADIO ARCHIVES WHRA-6046 [4 CDs: 255:22]
There is significant overlap between this set and EMI’s survey of Toscanini’s BBC Symphony-HMV legacy on EMI Classics 7 23334-2, a 6-CD box. The EMI however is missing the Cherubini, Geminiani and the Haffner Symphony. I’ll have a little to say about respective sound quality later.
When he came to Britain in 1935 for the third London Music Festival, Toscanini had effectively priced himself out of all native orchestras’ reach except the BBC Symphony. Adrian Boult’s ensemble was rivalled in the city only by Beecham’s slightly younger London Philharmonic. However, in the BBC Symphony Toscanini found the work of an expert trainer, and a musician then very much in awe of him - Boult. The orchestra also sported a wonderful leader in the shape of Arthur Catterall, whom the Italian conductor is on record as having highly praised. The orchestra was strong in almost all departments, notably the wind choir. There was considerable subterfuge to ensure these recordings were made and preserved, without Toscanini’s permission. It was not until decades after his death that many of them were first released. I’m sure that the frisson of excitement when the first LP transfers emerged will not easily be forgotten.
Toscanini never conducted a complete Cherubini opera but the Anacreon overture conveys the work’s mythical buoyancy with great drama. This is the earliest of Toscanini’s inscriptions of it and it’s the best, with the orchestra dashing and driving and the sound picture more theatrically intense than the NBC broadcast material. It’s right to set this reading beside those of important contemporaries such as Mengelberg, Leo Blech and Ettore Panizza. Successive examples from the NBC Symphony - 1939, 1943, 1945, 1948, 1950 and 1951 - serve only to heighten admiration for the June 1935 Brahms Fourth Symphony. It’s impossible to ignore the superb lyricism, the swelling exultant flow of the music-making, its passion held in check by refined orchestral discipline. Both Toscanini and Boult revered Fritz Steinbach as an interpreter of Brahms. It’s possible, maybe, to detect something of Steinbach in their shared inheritance in the clarity of textures and malleably flexible but never distended rhythm. Admittedly, as recorded, the winds are backwardly placed in Queen’s Hall, but this urgently alive reading is one of Toscanini’s very best inscriptions of a Brahms work and an object lesson to all conductors. The first disc concludes with his powerfully convincing concert version of Siegfried’s Death and Funeral Music. The following year he recorded this with the New York Philharmonic Symphony and later, multiply, with the NBC.
The second disc offers more Wagner from 5 June 1935, A Faust Overture, which he did quite often later at the NBC; the LP was of the 1946 performance. The Prelude to Act I and the Good Friday Music from Parsifal remind one of his famously fluidly expansive Bayreuth performances - his account there, at the time, being one of the slowest yet to be heard. The Act II Fanfare and Good Friday Music are a little slower than the studio recording he made. The performance of the Enigma variations was greatly admired by the man who was then, by common consent, Elgar’s greatest living interpreter, Landon Ronald. Each variation is strongly characterised and each opportunity for soloistic presence is richly inhabited. Toscanini brings out the harmonic, the structural implications of the music much more than most, and does so with great precision. That said, this is not as moving a performance as the one conjured over the years by Pierre Monteux.
The Geminiani Concerto grosso (12 June 1935) is making its first appearance here, some technical problems having previously precluded issue. The litheness and ensemble strength of the BBC’s strings is a tribute to the section leaders as much as to the experienced Catterall. Rossini’s Semiramide overture is the earliest Toscanini performance known to have survived. In terms of tonal warmth and sheer zest it’s probably the pick of a big (all NBC) bunch. The disc is rounded out - if that’s not an infelicitous phrase - by Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. Talking of infelicity, the doyen of British critics, Ernest Newman, sourly remarked that parts of this performance sounded flippant. I have to say I can’t hear what he means unless he was basing his yardstick on, say, Hans Richter. We’ll never know how Richter took this symphony, or indeed anything, with any degree of accuracy as he never recorded, any more than did Steinbach. In any case it’s really very much a question of degree as to whether you prefer this or the slightly later 1936 New York version.
La Mer opens Disc 4. It’s a wonderfully vivid reading, made in June 1935, with trademark precision but balance. In recent months I’ve auditioned a Koussevitzky performance from New York that simply astounds, so gripping is it. Toscanini’s is not quite that pulse quickening, nor is it truly Francophile, if that appellation means so very much. I well recall the EMI LP coupling of this and the Enigma variations and it sounded wonderful back then and not so much less now. Mozart’s Haffner had already been recorded by Toscanini back in New York in 1929. Subsequent broadcast performances followed with the NBC in the 1940s. This BBC performance isn’t quite as big a reading as the New York one of six years previously but it’s less doctrinaire and more flexible than the 1946 NBC. Admirers of the horn playing of Aubrey Brain, father of Dennis, will welcome the chance to savour the incidental music to A Midsummer Night’s Dream. As an encore there is Beethoven’s The Creatures of Prometheus overture which was recorded in Queen’s Hall for commercial release - it never appeared. Perhaps there was no suitable coupling, as Christopher Dyment suggests in his outstanding booklet notes.
The transfers here are really splendid. They have a sense of immediacy and warmth, with very little noticeable surface noise, whilst still yielding a considerable amount of clarity. The famed Queen’s Hall acoustic is preserved in all its richness. If you have the EMI box then you have a real dilemma because of the three extra items in this WHRA release. Toscanini enthusiasts certainly need one or the other; my hunch is that this WHRA is, in its restoration skill and completeness, the one to go for, notwithstanding the fact that EMI naturally holds the masters.
Masterwork Index Beethoven 7 Brahms 4 La Mer Enigma Variations Mozart 35
CD 1 [62:58]
Luigi CHERUBINI (1760-1842)
Anacreon - Overture [10:30]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Symphony No. 4 in E minor, Op. 98 [38:55]
Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Götterdämmerung, Act III - Siegfried’s Death and Funeral Music [13:17]
CD 2 [68:26]
Sir Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Variations on an original theme (‘Enigma’), Op. 36 [27:17]
A Faust Overture [12:35]
Parsifal - Prelude to Act 1 [15:20] Act II Fanfare and Good Friday Music [11:34]
CD 3 [54:49]
Francesco GEMINIANI (1687-1762)
Concerto Grosso in G minor, Op. 3, No. 2 [8:07]
Gioacchino ROSSINI (1792-1868)
Semiramide - Overture [12:02]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony No. 7 in A major, Op. 92 [34:28]
CD 4 [69:09]
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
La Mer - Three Symphonic Sketches [22:35]
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Symphony No. 35 in D, K 385 (‘Haffner’) [19:32]
Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
A Midsummer Night’s Dream - Incidental Music, Op. 61: Nocturne [5:48]; Scherzo [4:21]
Encore: Ludwig van BEETHOVEN
The Creatures of Prometheus - Overture, Op. 43* [4:46]
This WHRA is, in its restoration skill and completeness, the one to go for, notwithstanding that EMI holds the masters.
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